Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Little Order for a Change

Assoc. for L.A. Deputy Sheriffs v. L.A. Times Commc’ns LLC, B253083 (D2d3 Aug. 19, 2015).

The anti-SLAPP statute takes a lot of heat, often deserved, because it can interfere with claims that have little or nothing to do with anyone’s legit First Amendment rights. But this here is the quintessential anti-SLAPP motion. A cop union sued The Los Angeles Times on behalf of anonymous deputy sheriffs to obtain a prior restraint order enjoining the paper from reporting that some new deputies hired by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department had skeletons in their closets. According to the complaint, the reporter had obtained confidential background check information—including allegations about prior misconduct—that he intended to use in reporting a story.

After the Union’s TRO motion was unceremoniously denied because it sought relief that wasn’t even available for the Pentagon Papers, the LAT filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which the trial court granted. The union does not seriously contend that its claims don’t arise from protected activity. Instead, it argues that the anti-SLAPP remedy is barred because the LAT’s conduct was “illegal as a matter of law.” It tried to support this assertion with some anonymous declarations that stated, effectively, that the background check materials were confidential so that anyone who obtained them must have done so through illegal means. The union did not, however, actually provide any evidence that anyone at the LAT stole the files or received them with knowledge that they were stolen. Moreover, the the First Amendment protects the right of the press to publish or disclose information contained in documents that had been illegally obtained by others. So by no means could the Union show that the LAT’s actions were “illegal as a matter of law.”

Moving on to the merits, the Union’s claim had none, of course, because it sought to impose a prior restraint on the press. See N.Y. Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971). The Union makes various specious arguments why the standard doesn’t apply. But c’mon! As the court explains “[h]ere, a labor union and unnamed officers seek to stop a newspaper from publishing news reports about the hiring and evaluation of officers, including allegations of past misconduct.” 


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