Monday, December 23, 2002
Suit Against Antelope Valley Student Who Told Authorities of Threats Was SLAPP, C.A. Rules
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A lawsuit brought against a high school student who, a week after the Columbine high school massacre, informed authorities about a classmate’s threats of violence was a strategic lawsuit against public participation, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
In an unpublished opinion by Justice Richard Mosk, Div. Five Thursday affirmed orders by retired San Bernardino County Municipal Court Judge Carol Koppel striking David Belisle’s suit against Kristina Tapia, her parents, the Antelope Valley Union High School District, and Los Angeles County.
Koppel, who heard the case on assignment to the Los Angeles Superior Court, ruled that Belisle’s claims of defamation and invasion of privacy were an attack on the right of free speech.
Tapia was a freshman at Quartz Hill High School when she told the vice principal that she had overheard Belisle the previous day, telling a classmate that he wanted “to kill people” because he was “sick of them.” Later that day, she reported that Belisle had, after learning of her first report, threatened to “get” her.
At the time Tapia reported what she had heard, school authorities were already investigating a report that another student was going to get two pipe bombs from Belisle and his brother, Michael. David Belisle had already admitted that had received a “diskette bomb” recipe and instructions on how to make a hydrogen bomb, while Michael Belisle and two other students had been suspended.
Following Tapia’s reports, David Belisle was charged with making terrorist threats and intimidating a witness. According to a news report, a juvenile court judge ordered him to serve six months’ probation.
His expulsion from Quartz Hill, however, was later overturned by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which found that there was insufficient evidence of a threat.
In February 2000, David Belisle and his parents sued for slander, invasion of privacy and false arrest. The school district, later joined by the county, filed an anti-SLAPP motion, while the Tapias brought their own motion.
Koppel concluded that all of the plaintiffs’ claims were based on statements that were made in the course of an official investigation, and were thus privileged. She granted the motions and threw out the suit in its entirety.
Mosk, writing for the Court of Appeal, held that under recent California Supreme Court decisions, the defendants were not required to show that the suit arose from a “valid” exercise of free speech rights.
The defendants’ initial burden under the anti-SLAPP law, the justice explained, is only to show that the statements for which they were sued were made in a public proceeding, in connection with an issue of public interest, or otherwise in furtherance of the right of free speech or petition.
Once that burden is satisfied, Mosk further explained, the burden shifts to the plaintiffs to show that they will probably win the suit. Whether the speech was actually constitutionally protected, the justice explained, is only relevant to the determination of whether the plaintiff met this burden.
Applying those rules to the Belisles’ suit, Mosk agreed with the trial judge that Kristina Tapia’s statements were made in the course of an official proceeding, namely the investigation of the potential for violence by the Belisle brothers and their friends. The Belisles, he added, could not have prevailed at trial, based on the evidence presented in opposition to the motions, since the statements were absolutely protected by the Civil Code Sec. 47(b) official proceedings privilege.
The Tapias’ attorney, Robert K. Friedl of the El Segundo firm of Kirtland & Packard, called the decision “very timely.” Students, he said, “have got to be able to tell their teachers what’s going on” when campus security is threatened.
Friedl said he may ask for publication of the decision.
An unfortunate aspect of the case, he told the MetNews, is that the Tapias have become indebted for thousands of dollars in legal fees, only a small portion of which would be covered if they were to collect their statutory fee award.
A cross-complaint for indemnification by the school district was dismissed, Friedl said, by a judge who was sympathetic to his clients’ plight but said students are not legally analogous to employees, who are entitled to indemnification if sued for actions undertaken within the scope of employment.
Publicity about the case, the attorney added, helped lead to passage of AB 1717, which makes it clear that a student’s comments to school authorities are “subject to liability in defamation only upon a showing by clear and convincing evidence that the communication or report was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the communication.”
But it is unlikely the legislation would have made any difference in the case, Friedl said.
Lancaster attorney Brian Reed, who represented the Belisles, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The case is Belisle v. Antelope Valley Union High School District, B152229.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company