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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge tosses LA’s second lawsuit against journalist over police headshots

The ruling comes a day after the city agreed to pay the journalist's lawyer $300,000 to settle a similar lawsuit.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — For 29-year-old freelance journalist Ben Camacho, it's two legal victories in two days.

On Monday, the city of Los Angeles agreed to drop its lawsuit against Camacho and a nonprofit advocacy group over hundreds of photographs of Los Angeles Police Department officers, which it claims were "inadvertently" handed over to Camacho when it fulfilled a public records act request.

As part of the settlement, which still needs to be approved by City Council, the city will pay $300,000 in defense attorney fees.

On Tuesday, Camacho won a second dismissal a similar lawsuit against him on free speech grounds.

"It's clearly protected activity, protected by the First Amendment, as it relates to his role as a journalist," said Superior Court Judge David Cunningham.

Camacho was working as a freelancer in 2021 when he filed a public records act request for "the most up-to-date roster of LAPD names, badge numbers, serial numbers, division, sworn status" of every LAPD officer, as well as their headshots. The police department fulfilled most of the request, but withheld the photos.

Camacho sued for the photos, and eventually, the city agreed to hand over more than 9,000 headshots on a zip drive. As part of the settlement, the city said it was excluding photos of cops in an "undercover capacity."

Camacho handed over the photos and the information to the nonprofit activist group, Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which it used to create a searchable database of nearly every cop in LA — Watch the Watchers.

The website enraged the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which said the database included "the names and photographs of officers engaged in sensitive investigative assignments, placing their lives and the lives of their families in extreme jeopardy and peril."

The league then sued the city, calling the photos' release "one of the worst security breaches in recent memory." Even Mayor Karen Bass called the debacle "an egregious mistake." After the city sued Camacho and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, the league dropped its suit.

Later, more than 140 anonymous officers who say they have "worked recently in either an undercover or surveillance capacity" filed their own lawsuit against the city, saying they fear retribution from criminals they have helped prosecute. The city then filed its second complaint against Camacho and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition as a cross-complainant in the officers' lawsuit.

Whereas the earlier suit sought to claw back the photographs and get the Watchers site taken down, the second suit was over money, seeking to force Camacho and the Coalition to pay for any judgment or settlement owed to the anonymous cops.

And whereas the first suit survived an anti-SLAPP motion — a legal maneuver to quickly dismiss any suit aimed at chilling free speech or public debate — Cunningham agreed to grant the anti-SLAPP in the second case, and dismiss the officers' lawsuit.

The city had also filed its own anti-SLAPP motion, to dismiss the LAPD officers' lawsuit. Assistant City Attorney Aneta Freeman told the judge that she thought the two motions should have been heard at the same time, and that if Camacho's actions were protected by the anti-SLAPP statute, than so too should the city's.

Cunningham was unmoved by that argument, saying that Camacho's status as a journalist made his argument fundamentally different.

"The media cannot be punished for publishing truthful information," he said. "And that extends to re-publication."

The ruling marks the end of a legal proceeding that's been hanging over Camacho's head for more than year — although the city can file an appeal.

"Last year, the day I found out that I was sued, was one of the most stressful days of my life," Camacho said after the hearing. "I've had an increase in paranoia, stress and anxiety. It's been a lot."

He said the ruling hadn't completely hit him yet — he was still processing.

He added: "The fact that LA, a city that's as progressive as it is, would sue a journalist, really shows that they're acting in their own self-interest."

Hamid Kahn, the co-leader of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, said after the hearing that the city's two lawsuits aimed at Camcho and his group were an "abuse of power" by city attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto, and said it was a "complete failing" of other city officials to "reign" her in.

The city attorney's office has not responded to an email requesting a comment on the ruling.

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Categories / Politics, Regional

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