(CN) - Protesters were not protected from a defamation suit after they accused Overhill Farms of firing hundreds of employees under a racist pretext, a California appeals court ruled.
The frozen-food company in Vernon, Calif., fired 230 employees after the Internal Revenue Service reported that they had provided false Social Security numbers, and the employees did not provide valid numbers.
One of the workers who was fired, community activist Nativo Lopez, then led a protest outside two of Overhill's plants and at the business of an Overhill customer.
The protesters accused Overhill of using a "supposed discrepancy" as a pretext to fire older and minority workers, the ruling states.
Leaflets passed out by the protesters accused Overhill's president of eliminating older workers and replacing them with younger employees with no benefits.
They noted, according to the ruling, that "many of us are single female heads-of-households with various children," and that Overhill's president "is confident that we are passive and will accept this racist and discriminatory abuse against Latina women immigrants and our families without a fight. But he is wrong."
Overhill responded by suing the protestors for defamation. Lopez tried to block the lawsuit with an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) motion.
The trial court denied the motion, however, and the Santa Ana-based Fourth District California Court of Appeals affirmed in a split-panel decision.
"The statements reflected in defendants' written press release, leaflets and flyers accused Overhill of more than harboring racist attitudes," Justice William Bedsworth wrote for the court's majority opinion. "They accused Overhill of engaging in a mass employment termination based on racist and ageist motivations."
Bedsworth added that the protestors' remarks were not made on "fully disclosed facts."
"The record indicates that defendants revealed only very selected facts in support of their claims that Overhill has used the discrepancies in Social Security numbers as a mere pretext for the firings," Bedsworth wrote.
Associate Justice Richard Fybel wrote a dissenting opinion, finding that the protesters were protected under the First Amendment and their motion to strike should have been granted.
"The majority opinion is an unprecedented and unwarranted extension of defamation law and is contrary to the First Amendment," Fybel wrote. "By this lawsuit, Overhill seeks to curb and chill employee protests."
Fybel continued: "Would it be actionable if the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, Fox News, or MSNBC complained that actions by anyone were "racist" or "discriminatory"? Of course not. Employees complaining about their employer enjoy the same protection."
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