Friday, November 8, 2013
Court Upholds SLAPP Ruling in Suit Over Online Comments
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Riverside Superior Court judge properly granted an anti-SLAPP motion in a suit against the company that publishes the Orange County Register, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. Three affirmed the ruling striking Paul Hupp’s pro per breach-of-contract complaint against Freedom Communications, Inc. Hupp claimed the company’s policies regarding comments on stories required it to remove derogatory references to him in postings regarding a public-employee-pension controversy.
While Hupp styled his action as a garden-variety breach-of-contract suit, Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia and the Court of Appeal agreed that it implicated the newspaper company’s free speech rights and that the claim was barred by the First Amendment and the Communications Decency Act.
Hupp described the comments as harassment and invasions of privacy.
In moving to strike, the Register said that Hupp complained to the author of an article about public safety pensions in Orange County about five postings by Mike Bishop, who was also named as a defendant in the case.
Bishop criticized Hupp as a vexatious litigant, and linked to a blog which cited Hupp’s use of graphic and seemingly threatening language about a panel of Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges. That panel ruled against Hupp in his efforts to discharge student loan debt he incurred while pursuing a law degree.
The company attached to the anti-SLAPP motion a copy of its user agreement, in which it said “we reserve the right, but undertake no duty, to review, edit, move, or delete any User Content provided for display or placed on the Service, at our sole and absolute discretion, without notice to the person who submitted such User Content.”
It also argued that the exchange between Bishop and the plaintiff concerned both vexatious litigation and public safety pensions, two subjects of public interest for purposes of the anti-SLAPP statue.
Presiding Justice Manuel Ramirez, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the statute clearly applied, without regard to how the cause of action was styled.
The jurist cited Barrett v. Rosenthal (2006) 40 Cal.4th 33. which held that Sec. 230 of the Communications Decency Act—which immunizes users of interactive computer services from liability for content authored by others—abrogates traditional liability for republication of material that one knows or reasonably should know to be false and defamatory.
“We follow Barrett and the other cases cited above and conclude that the Register’s actions arose from its acts in furtherance of its free speech rights,” Ramirez wrote. “Maintaining a forum for discussion of issues of public interest is a quintessential way to facilitate rights, and the Register has no liability for doing so.”
The case is Hupp v. Freedom Communications, Inc., E057390.
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