LOS ANGELES (CN) - The founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society on Thursday failed to persuade a federal judge that another animal rights advocate's allegations of slander and libel chill free speech rights.
Ady Gil sued Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson last year in Federal Court, alleging libel, trade libel, slander and other counts. The filing was in response to several statements Watson made after Gil had filed a breach of contract claim against the group.
In a 2013 lawsuit, Gil, who chartered a ship to protest Japanese whaling, alleged that the host of the television series "Whale Wars" deliberately sank his $1.5 million, 78-meter trimaran "Ady Gil" in the Antarctic.
Gil claimed the group sank the boat after a collision with a Japanese vessel to generate publicity and funds for Sea Shepherd. Gil sued in Superior Court , seeking $5 million in damages.
Watson then made several statements about Gil, including comments on his personal Facebook page, where he called Gil "an animal killer with no love for animals," according to court records.
Whaling has been banned internationally since 1986, but the Institute of Cetacean Research kills whales in the Southern Pacific under Japanese government "research" contracts.
For 10 years, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has conducted anti-whaling campaigns against the whalers. The group's missions are documented in "Whale Wars."
Sea Shepherd claims that the whalers are committing piracy on the high seas.
U.S. courts have taken a different view. In 2013, the 9th Circuit found that the animal activists are the ones doing the terrorizing.
"You don't need a peg leg or an eye patch. When you ram ships; hurl glass containers of acid; drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders; launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks; and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate, no matter how high-minded you believe your purpose to be," Judge Alex Kozinski wrote of Sea Shepherd's tactics.
Gil has filed three lawsuits against Sea Shepherd. The first, for breach of contract, was filed in 2013. That was followed by the defamation claim that came before the court Thursday. Gil then made a racketeering claim .
All three cases began in Superior Court and were removed to Federal Court.
On Thursday morning, Judge George Wu held a telephonic hearing on Sea Shepherd's motion to strike Gil's lawsuit under California anti-SLAPP law, which shields free speech rights.
At the hearing in Wu's courtroom in downtown Los Angeles, Watson and Sea Shepherd lawyer Paula L. Zecchini, with Irvine firm Ring Bender, tried to persuade Wu to grant the motion in its entirety.
In a March 16, 2014 Facebook post, Watson wrote that an organization called the Animal Advocacy Museum was cooperating with an "animal-killing company" by holding an event hosted by Gil.
"You can't support saving animals by working with and cooperating with people who are responsible for killing them," Watson wrote, according to court records. "Yet that is just what the Animal Advocacy Museum is doing by holding an event in Woodland Hills in [sic] March 29th to be hosted by Ady Gil."
But evidence linking Watson's statements to Sea Shepherd are "wholly lacking," Zecchini told Judge Wu.
"There is zero evidence in the record to show that Sea Shepherd had any control over Watson, let alone control over his statements posted on his personal Facebook page," the attorney said.
Gil's attorney, Daral Blair Mazzarella, with San Diego firm Mazzarella & Mazzarella, predictably disagreed.
"They employ him. Sea Shepherd funds him. Sea Shepherd supports him. ... No one on the planet is more closely associated with Sea Shepherd than Watson," Mazzarella said. "He constantly refers to he and Sea Shepherd as 'we' and 'us.' He helps them raise money. He christens boats for them."
Wu needed little persuading. He said he would make his tentative order final and deny Watson and Sea Shepherd's anti-SLAPP motions as to slander, libel, and unfair business practices.
But he granted Sea Shepherd's motion to strike the causes of action for trade libel, negligent interference with business relations, and intentional interference with business relationships.
Wu stayed the case pending resolution of Gil's racketeering claim.
Late last year, Sea Shepherd was found in contempt of a court order that barred it from coming with 500 yards of Japanese vessels.
The 9 th Circuit ruled in that case that Sea Shepherd gave ships and equipment to an Australian arm of the organization to get around the court order and continue its missions.
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