Friday, May 15, 2009
Libel Suit Against Fox News Over Migrant Report Held SLAPP
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A suit charging Fox News Network with defaming immigrant day laborers in a story about a fight they had with an anti-immigration activist was properly stricken under the anti-SLAPP law, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
In a 2-1 decision, Div. One affirmed San Diego Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Styn’s order eliminating the claim against Fox from the suit arising from a November 2006 incident involving John Monti.
Monti is a teacher from Montebello who has argued that day labor sites should be shut down in order to discourage illegal immigration. Day laborers, he claims, have been living in outdoor migrant camps that are the scene of illegal activities, including child prostitution.
On the day of the incident, he says, he was photographing day laborers, who attacked him. The police promptly arrested Jose Balzaga, whom they identified from the pictures Monti took, but released him after questioning, pending further investigation.
Fox News showed a four-minute story about the event on its now-defunct “Hannity & Colmes” show, featuring Monti’s charges against the migrants and his claim that the police were not taking the incident seriously. Monti displayed a poster containing photographs of seven of the men, including Balzaga.
The entire story was shown with the caption “MANHUNT AT THE BORDER.”
The seven men filed suit against Fox News, Monti and San Diego Minutemen leader Jeff Schwilk, charging violation of civil rights and defamation. Monti filed a cross-complaint against the plaintiffs, the San Diego Police Department and a pro-immigration activist who allegedly tried to persuade police to arrest Monti.
The appeal ruled on yesterday concerned only the anti-SLAPP motion by Fox News, which was granted after the judge found that the men were unlikely to prevail against the network. Styn concluded that no reasonable person would understand the story as containing an allegation that the police were actually searching for the plaintiffs or had charged them with crimes.
The trial judge explained:
“It’s pretty clear if there is a manhunt, it’s by this guy [Monti], it’s not a police manhunt, it’s this Monti guy.”
When the plaintiffs’ counsel countered that a “manhunt” generally refers to a search by more than one person and thus must have referred to the police, the judge responded:
“If you take it in the context of the entire broadcast, I don’t think that’s what you come away with. There’s no mention of police, manhunt, there’s no inference of it. There’s this one guy who’s out there on this rant with his pictures and that, and they talk about him, and they have a little caption ‘Manhunt at the Border.’ I just don’t see it.”
Justice Judith Haller didn’t see it either.
“[W]e conclude that a person who viewed the Fox News broadcast would not have reasonably concluded that law enforcement officers were conducting a ‘manhunt’ for plaintiffs,” the justice wrote. “Instead, viewed in context, the Manhunt caption was an attention-grabbing or colorful way of referring to Monti’s own attempts to bring to justice the alleged perpetrators of the attack against him.”
The caption, Haller explained, must be understood in context. The story, she noted, made clear that police were “investigating” the incident, and referred to Monti’s “alleged attackers” and his allegations of what they did to him. It also included Monti’s criticism of the police, including the statement that “if it had been eight white guys attacking a migrant, I think they would have already tried and convicted...the people in the court of public opinion.”
Haller distinguished Kaelin v. Globe Communications Corp. (9th Cir. 1998) 162 F.3d 1036, in which the court held that Kato Kaelin had a triable claim against a tabloid for publishing a headline that could have been read as insinuating that police believed he was involved in the Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman murders. While a full reading of the article would show that police thought Kaelin guilty of perjury, not murder, the court explained, a libel claim could still be based on the headline, which appeared on the cover of the publication, whereas the story appeared on page 17.
The “MANHUNT” caption, unlike the Kaelin headline, “cannot be reasonably viewed apart from the rest of the story because a viewer who saw the caption also necessarily heard the story,” Haller wrote.
Presiding Justice Judith McConnell concurred, while Justice Cynthia Aaron dissented.
“The majority’s conclusion is based on the notion that any reasonable viewer of the telecast would interpret the word ‘manhunt’ in a manner that is inconsistent with any known definition of the term, and inconsonant with the context in which the term is used in the telecast,” Aaron wrote. “Because I cannot agree with the majority’s reasoning or its conclusions, I dissent.”
A reasonable person, Aaron insisted, might well have concluded from the caption that the police were searching for Balzaga and the other plaintiffs, and that they were “wanted” for committing a crime, even if the person watched the entire segment. Saying that the police were “investigating” the incident, she said, did not negate this implication, since police often “conduct manhunts in furtherance of investigations.”
Indeed, the dissenting jurist argued, “by far the most reasonable interpretation of the caption, and the one that I personally hold after having viewed the segment,” is that the story referred to a law enforcement manhunt.
The case is Balzaga v. Fox News Network, LLC, D052743.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company