Judge Rejects Cartoonist’s Defamation Claim Against Tribune

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Cartoonist Ted Rall faced another setback in his defamation and wrongful termination lawsuit against the LA Times, when a Superior Court judge granted Tribune Media’s motion to strike his complaint under the First Amendment.

Rall is a nationally syndicated cartoonist based in New York. He sued the Times and its then-corporate owner Tribune Company in March 2016, claiming the paper wrongfully fired him over an opinion piece he wrote about a 14-year-old jaywalking incident and an ensuing confrontation with a motorcycle police officer.

In a 2015 blog post, Rall said the officer handcuffed him, roughed him up and threw his wallet into a sewer.

In July that year, editor Nicholas Goldberg wrote in a note to readers that a Times investigation raised “serious questions about the accuracy of Rall’s blog post,” and said the paper would no longer publish the freelancer’s work.

The Times based its decision on a poor quality audio recording of the incident sent to the newspaper by the LAPD. Rall later published an enhanced version on his website that he says verified the account in his blog post. He contends that Times rushed to judgment without properly reviewing the police tape or giving him the opportunity to defend himself.

Rall says the Times’ statements were defamatory because the paper suggested his account was inaccurate and that readers should not trust it.

In June, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Joseph Kalin granted LA Times staffers’ motion to strike. Goldberg joined former Times publisher Austin Beutner, reporter Paul Pringle, who investigated Rall, and readers’ representative Deirdre Edgar in filing the motion. Rall has appealed that judgment.

Tribune Media filed a similar motion to strike under California’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute, created to protect free speech and deter meritless claims.

The Shegerian & Associates law firm, which filed the lawsuit for Rall, represented former LA Times sports columnist T.J. Simers and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jeff Gottlieb in their legal actions against the Times.

Rall raised money for his legal case through the crowdfunding site GoFundMe after the Times filed the anti-SLAPP motion and Judge Teresa Sanchez-Gordon ordered Rall to pay a $75,000 bond against the Times’ attorney fees, should the newspaper prevail.

In July, Shegerian & Associates attorney Nare Avagyan said that the firm was no longer representing Rall. In a blog post on his website that month, Rall said that the law firm “dumped” him and that Roger Lowenstein was representing him. Because of Times’ objections to any further delays and because he was in between attorneys, Rall argued for himself at a July 14 hearing in Kalin’s courtroom.

In another blow, Kalin granted Tribune’s Media’s motion on Aug. 4. The judge ruled that under the anti-SLAPP statute, Rall was a public figure and that the LAPD crackdown on jaywalking was an issue of public interest at the time the Times published his post. Therefore, the Times articles about Rall are privileged under the statute.

“Plaintiff was a public figure for his cartoons and articles on the Times editorial and opinion pages and websites, plaintiff’s article was a contribution to an issue which was a matter of public interest and when the Times determined that plaintiff’s article lacked credibility and contained inaccuracies its articles on that decision and the decision to terminate plaintiff were also matters of public interest,” Kalin wrote.

Turning to the merits of the cartoonist’s claims, Kalin found that the Times had drawn conclusions based on evidence submitted to the paper by the LAPD. That evidence included Rall’s citation for the 2001 incident, Rall’s letter of complaint to the department, a list of the department’s attempts to contact the cartoonist, and a letter from then-Chief of Police Bernard Parks concluding that his allegations against the officer were unfounded.

“There is no dispute that the materials reviewed were given to the Times by the LAPD. Plaintiff lacks evidence that the note and article reported falsely on this evidence as received. This is privileged [under the First Amendment],” Kalin wrote.

Rall highlighted a conflict of interest stemming from the LAPD union’s stake in an equity fund managed by the Times’ parent company. But Kalin said any relationship between the LAPD and the Times “does not obviate the privilege of reporting the LAPD’s investigation.”

Nor had Rall “established that defendants were obligated to find the enhanced tape accurate, credible and audible, determine that the enhanced tape stated what plaintiff said it stated, and print a story stating that plaintiff’s enhanced tape fully supported plaintiff’s account,” Kalin wrote.

In an email, Rall assailed the Times for its “shameless abuse” of the anti-SLAPP statute and said that he looked forward to arguing his case on appeal.

“Watching the Times repeatedly lie and dissemble in my case makes me wonder if readers can trust anything they print. Now more than ever, Americans need an honest and independent free press to report the truth – yet LA Times management continues to defend its shameful collusion with and corruption by LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, for whom the Times fired and defamed me,” Rall wrote.

The parties were to appear in Kalin’s court on Friday morning for a procedural matter.

Tribune Media declined to comment.

LA Times spokeswoman Hillary Manning declined to comment noting that the Times and its owner Tronc Inc. are separate from Tribune Media.

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