Political Editorial Didn’t Defame Would-Be Mayor

     OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – A politician cannot sue a newspaper and columnist for reporting that her campaign attempted to split the black vote, a California appeals court ruled.
     While two-term Peralta Community College District trustee Marcie Hodge was running for mayor of Oakland in 2010, political columnist Robert Gammon wrote about her in his “Full Disclosure” section of the East Bay Express.
     Titled “The Baffling Mayoral Bid of Marcie Hodge,” the column “raised questions regarding whether [Hodge] was running for mayor as a favor to veteran politician and fellow-candidate for mayor, Don Perata, who, Gammon suggested, was supporting her campaign in an effort to siphon off African-American votes from other, more viable mayoral candidates,” according to the ruling.
     Gammon also pointed out that Hodge’s fellow board members were forced to “publicly admonish” her for charging personal expenses to the district’s credit card at a time when Peralta was facing financial insolvency.
     Hodge sued Gammon, the Express and Stephen Buel, then-editor of the newsweekly, for defamation.
     An Alameda County judge struck the complaint, however, pursuant to California’s anti-strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) law.
     The California Court of Appeal’s first appellate district affirmed Thursday.
     Gammon’s statements that Perata was “behind” Hodge’s unsuccessful 2006 City Council run, and his suggestion that she ran “as a spoiler in the 2010 mayoral election,” qualify as protected opinion under the First Amendment, according to the ruling.
     “Gammon’s statements that Perata had ‘helped’ appellant in her 2006 City Council run after he and [Councilman Ignacio] De La Fuente had ‘found’ in appellant a candidate to take on [Desley] Brooks and that they were ‘behind’ her City Council run were based in part on his opinion as a commentator on local politics,” Justice J. Anthony Kline wrote for a three-judge panel.
     The column “offered the opinion of both Gammon and others as to appellant’s reason for being in the race, and invited readers to decide if they agreed with those opinions,” he added.
     As to the statements about how the board had investigated for using the district credit card, and that a colleague had admonished her, the court found them “absolutely privileged as fair reports.”
     In quoting third persons, Gammon also met the standard for the neutral reportage privilege of the First Amendment, according to the ruling.
     Gammon had been less neutral, however, in saying that Hodge’s “short tenure on the Peralta board has been plagued with scandal.”
     This remark rather qualified as opinion and an example of “rhetorical hyprbole,” Kline wrote.
     Gammon had been similarly hyperbolic in saying that Hodge “completely flopped” at the debate, according to the ruling.
     Hodge had been represented in the case by her younger sister, Nicole Hodge.
     San Francisco-based attorney Joshua Kolton responded the media defendants.
     The opinion’s publication occurred the same day that the Fair Political Practices Commission fined Hodge $5,000 for violating campaign election laws, according to a recent editorial by Gammon.

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