Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Suit Against CBS Over Report of Hearing Held SLAPP
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A defamation suit against CBS by a man who allegedly threatened to kill two prominent entertainment personalities was properly dismissed on an anti-SLAPP motion, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Justice Thomas Willhite Jr. of Div. Four wrote the opinion, which was not certified for publication. It affirms an order by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ruth Kwan.
The plaintiff, Phil Sparks, sued for libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress, based upon an article CBS published on its website on Aug. 14 14, 2012. The article described a hearing in which the court granted a restraining order against Sparks, ordering him to stay 300 yards away from singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow and film executive Harvey Weinstein.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James K. Hahn issued the order after hearing testimony about the threats made by Sparks, who was homeless, in emails to executives at Weinstein’s company, on the Facebook page of the entertainment union SAG-AFTRA, and to the union offices directly. It was affirmed last year by Div. Five of the Court of Appeal.
Sparks sued other media outlets, including the Associated Press and TMZ, over similar reports of the case, in separate actions. The TMZ suit was also thrown out under Code of Civil Procedure §425.16, a ruling that Div. Four of the Court of Appeal affirmed in May.
Sparks said the CBS article defamed him in three ways—by citing a union representative’s testimony that Sparks said he was going to shoot Crow and Weinstein, by reporting that a psychiatrist had interviewed Sparks and described him as “imminently dangerous,” and by saying the doctor had diagnosed the plaintiff as “unambiguously delusional.”
Those statements were false and defamatory, Sparks said, because he had uttered no such threats and because the psychiatrist and never interviewed, but had only spoken to him briefly. He also contended that the fair reportage defense did not apply because CBS omitted facts favorable to him from its report.
Willhite, however, said CBS had carried its threshold burden of showing that the complaint arose from its exercise of its constitutional right to report on a judicial proceeding, shifting the burden to Sparks to show a likelihood of prevailing.
Sparks cannot prevail, Willhite said, because he presented no admissible evidence of defamation or intentional infliction of emotional distress. Even if he had, the justice said, CBS would still be entitled to judgment in its favor, because “the article’s statements that Sparks asserts were libelous and caused him emotional distress…were accurate reports of the testimony at the hearing.”
The justice rejected the plaintiff’s contention that a media report cannot be “fair and true,” and thus privileged under Civil Code §47(d), unless it presents “both sides of the case roughly equally.”
“The focus of the court proceeding was to determine whether Sparks presented a threat to Crow and Weinstein such that they were entitled to a restraining order. The court in that proceeding relied upon the evidence presented and concluded that he was such a threat. The news article published by CBS merely recounted the evidence the trial court relied upon in issuing the restraining order. Thus, the article captured the substance or gist of the court proceeding and was absolutely privileged under section 47(d).”
The case is Sparks v. CBS News Inc., B254434.
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