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Ninth Circuit tosses defamation claims by college softball players

A Ninth Circuit panel agreed California Lutheran University's response to a lip-sync routine by softball players was protected speech for anti-SLAPP purposes.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Ninth Circuit threw out defamation claims by softball players and coaches at the California Lutheran University who claimed they were publicly shamed and harassed over a purported blackface lip-sync routine.

In an unsigned opinion Tuesday, the appellate court ruled that the trial judge should have granted the university's motion to dismiss the claims under California's anti-SLAPP statute, which is intended to quickly halt lawsuits that seek to stifle protected speech.

The case stems from a team-bonding event in early 2020 where five players lip-synced "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" theme dressed in hip-hop clothing, donning hats and wigs, and wearing dark makeup to suggest facial hair. They posted the performance to the team's Instagram account, prompting a complaint to the Thousand Oaks, California-based university that the performance involved blackface, a reference to white entertainers wearing dark makeup to caricature Black people.

Soon after, the university sent out two campus-wide emails to condemn what it said were recent racist incidents, and specified the blackface performance posted on social media, though without mentioning the softball team. The players denied that they were intentionally caricaturing Black people and culture. They claimed the emails contained false information and were intended to smear them.

The emails were picked up by local media and "inflamed racial passions and anger on the CLU campus," according to the softball team's lawsuit. The Black Student Union, they said, organized an unauthorized campus “walkout,” demanding that the entire softball team be ejected..

Last year, U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton in Los Angeles denied the university's anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss most of the team's claims. Although the judge agreed the university's statements were protected activity, she nevertheless concluded that the softball players had made a "legally sufficient" claim for defamation.

This, the Ninth Circuit panel said, wasn't correct because a claim for defamation isn't actionable when it involves a privileged publication. Specifically in this case, the claimed defamatory statements were privileged under the common-interest privilege since it involved a communication between parties that share a common interest.

"The common-interest privilege applies here because the statements by CLU’s leadership were made to the campus community, who share an interest in addressing matters of racism and racial justice as it pertains to student groups and campus activities," the panel said.

U.S. Circuit Judges Gabriel Sanchez and Salvador Mendoza Jr., both Joe Biden appointees, and U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson, a Barack Obama appointee sitting by designation from the Middle District of Louisiana, made up the panel.

Attorneys of the softball team and the university didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on the ruling.

Follow @edpettersson
Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Education, Sports

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