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Calif. appeals court sides with writer in fight with newspaper

By The Associated Press,
First Amendment Center Online staff

LOS ANGELES — A state appeals court has ruled in favor of a magazine writer who reported on turmoil at the Santa Barbara News-Press, saying she will not have to submit to a discovery process by the newspaper's lawyers.

The 4th District Court of Appeals ruling clears the way for Susan Paterno to have the newspaper's libel lawsuit against her dismissed, said her lawyer Charles Tobin.

"It's a total vindication of Susan's reporting and it's a ringing endorsement of a free press," Tobin said. "We will have to go back to the trial judge from here and he will have no choice but to dismiss the lawsuit."

The June 13 ruling said the newspaper had failed to prove that three contested passages in Paterno's story were false. The story titled "Santa Barbara Smackdown" appeared in the December 2006-January 2007 issue of the American Journalism Review.

The passages described the killing of a story about the editorial page editor's drunk driving sentence; a workplace restraining order against a former employee; and the publisher's cutting of newsroom staff benefits.

"The plaintiff fails to demonstrate the allegedly defamatory statements are provably false factual assertions," the ruling states. "No good cause exists to conduct discovery concerning actual malice."

The ruling, written by Justice Richard Aronson, orders the Orange County Superior Court to reverse its decision that would have allowed discovery to proceed.

Paterno directs the journalism program at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and is a senior writer for the American Journalism Review, which is published by the University of Maryland.

Stanton Stein, the lawyer for Ampersand Publishing LLC, which publishes the News-Press, did not respond to a message seeking comment in time for this story.

Ampersand sued Paterno for libel, but she sought to dismiss the lawsuit and recover her legal fees under California's anti-SLAPP — Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation — law, which is aimed at preventing the silencing of critics through lawsuits.

The sides are scheduled for a hearing in the Orange County court on July 7.


Federal judge won't reinstate fired Calif. reporters

Ruling denies request from National Labor Relations Board, backs First Amendment arguments brought by Santa Barbara News-Press. 05.29.08

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SLAPP suits

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