Arizona SLAPP Stories
SLAPPs Against Arizonans
- In July 2008, a poster on the Arizona-based ripoffreport.com, on which users are encouraged to share negative reviews of business transactions, accused the Swiss Finance Academy of being a “bait & switch company,” which required participants to “bring your OWN pillow, sheets, comforter and shower towels,” and “only served toast for breakfast.” Another post said the course locations were switched “a week before the program starts” and no refunds were given. Claiming the posts had contributed to a 70 percent decline in its summer 2009 enrollment, the school brought a lawsuit in New York state court against the operator of ripoffreport.com, Xcentric Ventures LLC, and a student it had expelled for defamation, who Swiss Finance Academy asserted had made the comments. Appearing pro se, the expelled student denied making the posts, but argued that the content was opinion and thus protected speech. In October 2009, the New York court agreed, dismissing the defamation claims against the poster and holding that repoffreport.com is protected under the Communications Decency Act, (47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1)) which provides that service providers may not be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another for liability purposes. The defendants were able to recover fees and costs. Intellect Art Multimedia, Inc. v Milewski, 2009 NY Slip Op. 51912(U) [24 Misc. 3d 1248(A)].
- In November 2007, the Maricopa County Superior court dismissed a defamation lawsuit against the East Valley Tribune. The lawsuit arose from a story the Tribune had published about an on-going lawsuit against Lee Watkins, the former owner of Cactus Towing in the town of Mesa. The Tribune had written a front-page story about the lawsuit by Infinity Insurance Company, which was suing Watkins and a number of Valley tow companies over their business practices. The insurance company claimed the tow shops worked together to swindle people out of hundreds of dollars when their vehicles were towed away. The tow companies routinely tacked on fees that the insurance company believed were “unreasonable,” the story noted, citing from the lawsuit. Watkins’ defamation suit, which aimed to turn the tables on the insurance company, was filed four days after the Tribune story ran. Watkins’ suit said the Tribune story “contained false statements” and had damaged his business. After comparing court documents to the story, the judge determined otherwise. Finding that the statements in the paper were substantially accurate, the court dismissed the suit. However, because Arizona’s anti-SLAPP law does not apply to non-petitioning statements in the public interest, including fair and true reports of ongoing litigation, the newspaper was not able to recover its fees and costs in defending against the SLAPP. See Watkins v. East Valley Tribune, et. al., (Ariz. Super. Ct. Nov. 21, 2009).
- In July 2005, the Sonoran News published an article about Darrell Wayne Condit. One line of the article stated, “Condit, whose real name is Darrell Wayne Condit, is the younger brother of former Democratic Congressman Gary Condit, who became the main focus of the Chandra Levy case in 2001, after lying to investigators about his affair with Levy.” Gary Condit filed a lawsuit against the newspaper and its publisher, claiming the sentence defamed him. Because he is a public figure, Condit had the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the article implied a false statement of fact and was made with actual malice or reckless disregard of the truth. The Court not only granted summary judgment for Sonoran News, but also found that Condit had filed his case in bad faith, and awarded the News its full attorneys’ fees and costs – $43,680.42 – for defending the case. The lawsuit against the News is one of about half-a-dozen defamation lawsuits that Condit and his wife have filed since Levy went missing. See Condit v. Conestoga Merchants, Inc. CV 2006-010682 (Ariz. Super. Ct. Sept. 26, 2007).
Sued for Speaking Out!
- In 2009, parents of children in a charter school raised issues in their online chat room about management, and improper relationships between management and the board of directors. The head of the school responded by suing six of the parents for defamation, alleging $150,000 in damages. The defamation suit, Brown v. Agora Parents Association, is ongoing in Montgomery county, Pennsylvania, even as the parents’ statements sparked a probe by the Department of Education, which has issued an ultimatum to the charter school board to either cancel a contract with the school founder’s management company and resign, or face revocation the school’s operating charter.
- In October 2007, Joe Kaufman, chairman of Americans Against Hate, published an article in FrontPage Magazine in which he claimed that two organizations cosponsoring a Muslim Family Day event had ties to radical Islamic groups, including Al-Qaeda. The Islamic Society of Arlington, Texas and several other Islamic organizations who were not mentioned in the article sued Kaufman for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress in Texas state court. The court enjoined Kaufman from threatening or harming anyone associated with the Muslim Family Day event. After Kaufman led a peaceful protest at Muslim Family Day, the case against Kaufman was dismissed. Kaufman v. Islamic Society of Arlington, 2009 Tex. App. LEXIS 4860 (Tex. App. Fort Worth June 25, 2009).
- In November of 2008, Texas developer George Royall sued the author of a book about an eminent domain development agreement that benefitted Royall. Displeased with the negative publicity, Royall sued the book’s author, its publisher, a book reviewer and the newspaper that published the review, and even Law Professor Richard Epstein, who had only written an introduction on the book’s dust jacket! The suit is actually Royall’s second in response to statements made about the development deal. In 2004, he sued the owners of two companies affected by the development deal who complained against his actions. See Royall v. Wright Gore, Jr., et. al., No. 29996 (2009) and Royall v. Main, et. al., No. DC-08-13480-B (2009).
- In April 2007, KinderUSA demanded that Yale University Press redact statements in a book it had published by author Dr. Matthew Levitt, which describes KinderUSA as a charitable front for terror financing. Yale Press refused to redact the statements, so KinderUSA brought suit against Yale Press, Levitt and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, alleging $500,000 in damages. KinderUSA v. The Washington Institute of Near East Policy, Matthew Levitt, and Yale University Press, Case No. BC370155 (filed Apr. 26, 2007).
- In 1986, Joseph Scheidler and a handful of other pro-life leaders formed a nationwide coalition called the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN) and began engaging in a concerted protest and outreach effort to persuade women to avoid abortion. In response to the protests, the National Organization for Women (NOW) and two abortion clinics sued Scheidler, PLAN and several other defendants, alleging violations of federal anti-trust laws and a conspiracy to shut down all abortion providers. In 1989, NOW added extortion and federal conspiracy charges to the lawsuit. The case wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court three times before, in 2006, twenty years after NOW first filed suit, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Scheidler. Now v. Scheidler, 547 U.S. 9 (2006).
- In 2005 a California real estate developer offered local appraiser Michael Stickney $100,000 to submit an inflated estimate for the value of an apartment property he planned to buy. Stickney went to the police, and wore a wire to the next few meetings with the developer. As a result of those communications, the district attorney launched an investigation, and criminal charges were filed against the developer. The developer then sued Stickney and others on thirteen separate causes of action ranging from slander to professional negligence, and issued subpoenas to Stickney and many unrelated parties, asking for personal and embarrassing information about Stickney, which he appeared to want to use to intimidate Stickney against testifying in the criminal case. Gaurano v. Stickney, San Bernardino Superior Ct. No.: S-1500-CV 257485 SPC.
- In 2004, Linda Hull, a New Mexico parent, realized that local music teacher Ted Vives had been convicted and registered as a child sex offender. She lobbied the school district to mandate that registered sex offenders be escorted on the school’s campus, and alerted other parents and organizations to Vives’ past, which she felt was particularly important because Vives had begun giving private, unaccompanied music lessons to students after school. In 2008, Vives sued Hull, claiming intentional interference with contractual relations, infliction of emotional distress, false light invasion of privacy and malicious abuse of process. At trial, Vives admitted he hadn’t disclosed to parents that he was a convicted sex offender when he moved to Los Alamos and began offering private music lessons in his home to teenagers. He also noted that being alone with children was a “sensitive trigger” of his “urges” to offend. Vives v. Hull (N.M. 1st Judicial Ct. Oct. 8, 2009).
The Liberty Legal Project Int., the legal reform organization HALT, and the Arizona Newspapers Association all support Federal Anti-SLAPP Legislation.