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Local news site gets into a SLAPP fight

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Was a 2012 online news article about hazardous waste disposal in SLO hard-hitting investigative reporting or a defamatory attack on a local businessman? That question’s still waiting for an answer as a legal battle continues to rage on in court.

A three-judge panel for the California Court of Appeals heard arguments June 30 about whether a defamation lawsuit over the article, published by CalCoastNews on its website, will see the inside of a court room.

An attorney for the site argued that the lawsuit against CalCoast should be dismissed under the state’s anti-SLAPP laws, which protect individuals or organizations who exercise free speech from lawsuits brought against them in an attempt to shut down or stifle them.

“We clearly fall easily within the SLAPP statute,” attorney Rochelle Wilcox said.

The article in question, published in November 2012, featured a number of accusations against Charles Tenborg and his hazardous waste management company, Arroyo Grande-based Eco Solutions Inc. Among them were that the company, which acted as a contractor for San Luis Obispo County’s Waste Management Authority, illegally transported waste material and that Tenborg encouraged public agencies to ignore state law.

Tenborg filed the defamation lawsuit against CalCoastNews and two of its reporters, Karen Velie and Daniel Blackburn, in May 2013, claiming the article was “false and highly damaging,” according to a press release from the Kerr and Wagstaff LLP law firm. CalCoast responded by filing an anti-SLAPP motion in September 2013 in SLO County Superior Court. That motion was denied, and CalCoastNews appealed that ruling.

In her arguments to the appeals court, Wilcox said that Tenborg failed to meet the burden of proving the statements in the article were false and stated that CalCoast was reporting facts they received from whistleblowers and other sources within the government.

“Everything they got led them to believe that this government information was reliable,” she said.

Some of the claims in the article were sourced to “city employees” but did not specifically name the individuals. Tenborg’s attorney, Kevin Clune, insisted the evidence in his client’s favor was clear and said Tenborg emphatically denied the site’s claims.

“All of that evidence is utterly false,” he said, urging the three justices to uphold the lower court’s ruling.

The justices did not make any decision on the case but took the matter under submission.

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