SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court yesterday set aside a jury's verdict requiring two former Varian Medical Systems workers to pay $775,000 for posting defamatory remarks about company executives on the Internet.
The decision was a major victory for individuals who invoke their First Amendment rights while defending themselves against defamation lawsuits. In the case decided yesterday, Varian Medical Systems v. Delfino, the justices ruled that the case against the Varian workers went to a jury prematurely, before the appeals courts could decide whether the speech was protected.
"You have a right not to be dragged through the courts because you exercised your constitutional rights," Justice Janice Brown wrote for the 6-1 court.
Brown, whose nomination by President Bush to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is pending, said only after the courts conclude that the speech at issue is not protected under the First Amendment can a defamation case go to a jury trial.
Media groups waded into the case in favor of the two former employees of the Palo Alto company. They argued that a 1999 California law, one of the nation's strongest in guarding free speech, required the justices to rule the way they did so people are not randomly sued solely because their speech is unpopular.
The decision means the two ex-employees can appeal a Santa Clara County judge's order that their speech was not protected under the First Amendment.
The case concerns Michelangelo Delfino, an engineer fired from the medical-device company in 1998, and his colleague Mary Day, who quit. Following their departures from Varian, the pair posted thousands of messages on the Internet alleging sexual affairs between executives and suggesting that Varian management was running the company into the ground.
They also used profanity to refer to company officials, called them "insane" and "dwarflike," and posted the locations of Varian executives' children.
The justices, however, ruled narrowly. They took no position whether the speech at issue was protected or whether the two former workers would prevail on their First Amendment claims on appeal.
Although the ruling was solely procedural, supporters said it sends a clear message that defamation cases must not be brought if they are frivolous.
"This is a major victory for free speech," said Jeremy Rosen, who represented the two workers.
Varian spokesman Spencer Sias said the company stood by the jury's decision that the two "defamed and harassed our employees" by posting more than 13,000 messages. But he said he did not know whether the company would continue the suit.
"We are reviewing our options," he said.
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Ronald M. George said that while there was procedural error in the case, the jury's 2000 verdict should stand.
The majority's ruling, he said, amounts to "the wasting of considerable time, effort and resources."