SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – In a public environment where the press is under attack from multiple quarters, a Democratic politician sued a California newspaper for libel in connection to an article that explored his past interactions with women.
Shaian Mohammadi, an elected member of the Santa Clara County Democratic Party Central Committee, sued San Jose Inside, an alternative weekly that covers San Jose and nearby communities, saying the newspaper engaged in a conspiracy to defame him.
“[D]efendants conspired to undermine plaintiff’s bid for reelection, to defame plaintiff with the local Democratic activist community, to prevent his local political career from progressing, and to inflict emotional distress upon plaintiff by publishing or aiding in the publication of the SJI article that contained several false statements,” Mohammadi said in a complaint filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court on Wednesday.
In a San Jose Inside article published on July 6, 2016, Jennifer Wadsworth, a staff writer for SJI named as a defendant in the complaint, wrote an article about how the Democratic Party in Santa Clara was wrestling with sexual harassment claims.
Mohammadi was one of the subjects of the story, which detailed an anonymous woman’s claims about how he posted a topless photo of her on Twitter after their romantic relationship fell apart.
The article also quoted city of San Jose staff member Ann Grabowski, said Mohammadi, who was running communications for the Santa Clara County Democratic Central Committee at the time, and who claimed Mohammadi subjected her to sustained unwanted and obsessive attention while she worked for San Jose Councilman Don Rocha.
The article includes Mohammadi’s refutation of the accusations and his assertion that his work on behalf of Hillary Clinton and women’s issues proved that the allegations lacked merit.
However, according to the recently filed complaint, Wadsworth is close friends with Grabowski, and she wrote the article intending to destroy Mohammadi’s political career.
Wadsworth had access to several people, some of whom were on Rocha’s staff, who could have attested to the false nature of the accusations against him, Mohammadi said in the complaint, but Wadsworth published the story anyway.
Mohammadi said he had proof that he never posted a topless photo of an ex-girlfriend or sent social media messages to Grabowski that appeared threatening, but Wadsworth was unwilling to hear or incorporate Mohammadi’s side of the story.
The article hampered the plaintiff’s ability to graduate law school, pass the bar and secure employment, the complaint states.
“As a result of the SJI article’s widespread dissemination, plaintiff was not able to secure post bar employment at various organizations, including the public defender’s office,” Mohammadi said in the complaint.
The media has been under constant attack by President Donald Trump, who has labeled various organizations as purveyors of “fake news.”
Wednesday’s suit shows that public officials lashing out at news organizations is not restricted to Republicans.
While the public’s trust of media is falling according to the American Press Institute and Gallup polls, it has not led to an increase in libel lawsuits against media organizations, according to a May 2017 article in trade publication Business Insurance. However, libel and defamation suits have skyrocketed over the past several years with the advent of social media, since anyone who publishes information on Twitter or Facebook could be subject to them.
Media liability insurance providers and attorneys have expressed concern that Trump’s naked contempt for the media could result in more attacks on it, both legal and otherwise.
“I’ve seen defamation claims booming lately and attacks on the media as well,” Lee Brenner, Los Angeles-based chair of the media and entertainment practice group of law firm Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, told Business Insurance. “We have an administration that has basically made no bones about the fact that he has contempt for the press.”
Mohammadi is represented by Kendall MacRostie of the Mlnarik Law Group based in Santa Cruz, California.
Dan Pulcrano, executive editor of San Jose Inside, told Courthouse News he had no comment because he had not yet seen the complaint.