LOS ANGELES (CN) – A judge Wednesday granted a Los Angeles Times editor, writer and former publisher’s motion to toss cartoonist Ted Rall’s defamation claims, citing a California law designed to protect free speech and quash frivolous lawsuits.
Rall, a nationally syndicated cartoonist, sued the Times and its corporate owner Tribune Company in March 2016. He alleged the paper wrongfully fired him over an opinion piece he wrote about a 2001 confrontation with a motorcycle cop.
In a 2015 blog post, Rall said the cop had handcuffed him, roughed him up and thrown his wallet into a sewer because he was jaywalking.
In July of 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 his work.
The Times based its decision on the poor quality audio of the incident that the Los Angeles Police Department had given it. Rall has since published his cleaned-up version of the tape that he says supports his version of events.
At the hearing, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Joseph Kalin considered a motion to strike filed by Goldberg, former Los Angeles Times publisher Austin Beutner, reporter Paul Pringle and reader’s representative Deirdre Edgar.
They had filed an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion against Rall.
Arguing anti-SLAPP law’s intention to protect free speech, the LA Times parties asked the court to strike Rall’s claims of defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Kalin granted the motion and said he expected to issue a written ruling by the end of the week.
The LA Times entities’ motions to throw the case out entirely are still pending, however. Kalin will hear those arguments at the end of the month and in July.
During Wednesday morning’s hearing, Rall’s attorney Nare Avagyan said the articles published by the Times about Rall did not relate to a matter of public interest under the First Amendment.
She said that the Times had attempted to frame the case as involving police misconduct but that the jaywalking incident depicted in the cartoon had “nothing to do with police misconduct.”
“That’s not what this case is about,” Avagyan said.
But Times attorney Kelli Sager disagreed, arguing the police misconduct that Rall wrote about, as well as the Times subsequent investigation and reporting of police records, fell squarely within the public interest and was protectable under the Fair Report Privilege, which holds parties harmless for publishing defamatory material that is backed by an official report.
“This is a quintessential SLAPP case,” Sager said.
After the hearing Jeff Glasser, the vice president of the LA Times legal department, and LA Times spokeswoman Hillary Manning declined to comment.
Avagyan said Rall would weigh whether or not to appeal.
Rall sat in the back row of the courtroom during proceedings. Outside, he said he was disappointed by the court’s ruling. He said the anti-SLAPP statute was intended to protect free speech against frivolous lawsuits filed by corporations.
“The State of California legislature I hope will strongly use cases like mine to take another look at the anti-SLAPP statute, which has been abused by deep-pocketed corporations like the LA Times which is owned by a $500 million conglomerate against a $300-a-week cartoonist,” Rall said.
The parties are expected to return to the court on June 28 to consider an anti-SLAPP motion filed by the Times.