Appeals Court Lets Producer Sue CNN on Bias Charge

LOS ANGELES (CN) – A California appeals court reversed an anti-SLAPP ruling against a 51-year-old black and Latino CNN correspondent fired for alleged plagiarism, calling it a private employment matter rather than suppression of CNN’s First Amendment rights.

Plaintiff-appellant Stanley Wilson started working for CNN in 1996 and four years later became the first African-American producer at its Los Angeles bureau. Despite his many awards for breaking news coverage and investigative reports, he never achieved senior producer rank because of his age and race, he said in his October 2014 lawsuit.

Wilson claimed CNN’s western bureau chief Peter Janos disliked him and prevented him from getting any more promotions after Janos took over in 2004. The last position Wilson applied for was as a producer at the White House, but Janos passed him over in favor of a younger white colleague who had recently been promoted to producer.

Wilson complained several times about the discrimination, but says Janos and CNN ignored him.

After Wilson did a piece on Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca’s retirement, CNN accused him of plagiarizing three sentences and fired him.

Wilson called this a pretext to get rid of him for complaining about discrimination, and taking five weeks of paternity leave in 2013 after his wife had twins.

He also accused CNN of falsely telling prospective employers he had committed plagiarism, preventing him from getting hired at another news organization.

CNN filed an anti-SLAPP motion, submitting Wilson’s three contested sentences into evidence along with the Los Angeles Times article he allegedly copied.

The trial court granted the motion, a decision reversed Tuesday by a 2-1 ruling from the Second Appellate District.

“This is a private employment discrimination and retaliation case, not an action designed to prevent defendants from exercising their First Amendment rights,” Appellate Judge Elwood Lui wrote for the majority. “Defendants may have a legitimate defense but the merits of that defense should be resolved through the normal litigation process, with the benefit of discovery, and not at the initial phase of this action.”

CNN argued that as a news organization its staffing decisions are intrinsically linked to its content, and by extension, to its speech rights.

Though the appeals court acknowledged that the choice of writers and producers does affect the way CNN covers the news, it found that Wilson’s discrimination and retaliation allegations have nothing to do with shaping this coverage.

“(T)he only reason the defendants’ failure to promote and firing of plaintiff are actionable is that they were allegedly acts of discrimination and retaliation. Absent these ‘motivations,’ Wilson’s employment-related claims would not state a cause of action. … Discrimination and retaliation are not simply motivations for defendants’ conduct, they are the defendants’ conduct,” Lui wrote.

Otherwise, all people bringing claims of discrimination and retaliation could face anti-SLAPP motions and shoulder more burdens of proof than other civil litigants, which contradicts the law’s purpose: to identify and kill meritless lawsuits intended to chill another party’s speech, the ruling states.

“Obviously, CNN could not argue that because it is a news agency it is allowed to discriminate, harass, or retaliate against its employees on grounds such as race, ethnicity, color or age,” Lui wrote.

Wilson’s allegations of defamation are not an issue of public interest since he was a behind-the-scenes writer and producer, not an on-camera reporter. Since the alleged defamation involves only Wilson, CNN, and perhaps a few other CNN employees, the dispute is a private one and not a matter of public interest, the ruling states.

Lui reversed, with Appellant Judge Victoria Chaney concurring.

Writing in dissent, Presiding Judge Frances Rothschild said this is a matter of public interest because Wilson had a “substantial and significant role in helping to advance and assist” CNN in reporting the news.

“The evidence establishes that Wilson had a significant role in shaping and reporting the news. He researched, wrote, and produced stories for CNN television and CNN’s website, and was expected to use his expertise, creativity, and skill to shape the public’s perception of the news. His work, in short, significantly impacted the content of the news reported to the public. His extensive list of prestigious journalism awards indicate that his contributions to the field were widely and repeatedly recognized,” Rothschild wrote.

He rejected the majority’s conclusion that CNN will have special immunity from wrongful conduct allegations if its anti-SLAPP motion is allowed to stand, and that victims of alleged discrimination would be subjected to motions to strike.

Regardless of their cause of action, only claims that arise “‘in furtherance of the [defendant’s] right of petition or free speech … in connection with a public issue’ would be subject to an anti-SLAPP motion,” Rothschild wrote, citing the Code of Civil Procedure. Those claims would not necessarily be stricken, but would have to be analyzed to evaluate whether they have the minimal merits necessary to proceed, Rothschild wrote.

He added that Wilson need not be a celebrity or public figure for the public interest requirement to apply to his defamation claim.

“Regardless of whether the general public is aware of Wilson’s name, CNN’s actions and statements concerning him – a widely honored news and documentary producer with one of the world’s largest and most respected news organizations – are connected with a matter of public interest.

“I would hold that a news organization’s employment decisions concerning a person, like Wilson, who has an undisputedly central role on the content of the news concerns an act in furtherance of the organization’s First Amendment rights and made in connection with issues of public interest.”

Neither Wilson’s attorney Lisa Maki nor CNN’s attorney Adam Levin with Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp immediately returned emailed requests for comment Thursday afternoon.

The panel granted Wilson costs of appeal.