How California’s anti-SLAPP law helped a nonprofit news site prevail in court

In a case that highlights both a point of potential vulnerability for many news startups and the significance of broad anti-SLAPP statutes, a California judge this week dismissed a lawsuit against inewsource.org, a nonprofit investigative newsroom in San Diego.

In the world of media lawsuits, this one was anything but ordinary. The suit had been brought in April by San Diegans for Open Government, a local nonprofit, and though it took aim at inewsource’s basic operating model, it didn’t go directly after the newsroom’s editorial output. Instead, the suit contested the legality of inewsource’s lease with San Diego State University and its media partner, KPBS, with which it shares resources and office space. The suit alleged conflicts of interest in the arrangement, and also accused the news organization of improperly using the trademarks of the university and KPBS.

But from the perspective of inewsource staff and other observers, the suit really was motivated by the outlet’s news coverage. San Diegans for Open Government has ties to a prominent attorney, Cory Briggs, who had been the subject of a months-long investigative series by inewsource. Lorie Hearn, executive director of inewsource, saw the suit as retaliation for the critical coverage of Briggs. The San Diego Union-Tribune agreed, calling it “an insult to the First Amendment” in an April editorial. The San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists similarly condemned the lawsuit, saying, “There is a right way and a wrong way to raise complaints about news coverage, and this is the wrong way.

And so last month, inewsource filed a motion to dismiss the suit, citing California’s anti-SLAPP statute, which aims to curb so-called “strategic lawsuits against public participation.” The law provides a special opportunity to have a suit quickly dismissed if the action that prompted the suit was taken “in furtherance of the person’s right of petition or free speech under the United States Constitution or the California Constitution in connection with a public issue.” (Hearn also rebutted the specific allegations in a related legal filing.) 

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In oral arguments on that motion last week, a lawyer for San Diegans for Open Government said the group’s lawsuit “has nothing to do whatsoever” with inewsource’s reporting. “They can report all they want,” the lawyer said, according to KPBS. “We have no problem with that.”

But Judge Eddie Sturgeon had a problem with the group’s lawsuit. Though his ruling does not address the specific motives for the suit, it found that inewsource’s contracts with the university and KPBS were themselves “inextricably related to news gathering and dissemination, which is clearly protected activity under” the state’s anti-SLAPP law.

The suit still could have proceeded if the judge believed the plaintiff had showed it was likely to prevail in their underlying allegations. But, he wrote, the group “did not meet its burden” there.

“We are gratified Judge Sturgeon agreed that this lawsuit challenged the very mission of inewsource, that is, to do investigative journalism,” Hearn said in a statement. “His decision underscores the importance of our work and of our partnership with KPBS.”

She said inewsource plans to seek to recover its legal fees, as the statute authorizes.

A lawyer for San Diegans for Open Government did not respond to a voicemail left at his office. In a blog post, the group said it was “disappointed” in the outcome and promised to appeal. (The group reiterates its arguments about conflict-of-interest in that post; Hearn responded with a statement here.) 

While the suit’s dismissal is a win for inewsource, the case carries implications for other news organizations, particularly small nonprofits. 

For one thing, it highlights the value to news outlets of anti-SLAPP statutes. That law was key to getting the suit tossed out early, but not all states have anti-SLAPP legislation, and in the states that do, the law isn’t always as expansive as California’s.

For another, the case is an example of the way partnerships, which can be crucial to news startups, can also become targets for critics—especially when those partnerships involve public entities. And this isn’t the first time a nonprofit news organization with a public university partner has been under siege. Two years ago, Anna Clark wrote for CJR about how state lawmakers, using their power over the university system, tried to expel the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from the University of Wisconsin.

A concerted effort helped the Wisconsin journalists win that fight on the political front, just as inewsource looks to have won in court. So the record of the critics isn’t great. But still, it wouldn’t be surprising to see another case like this at some point.

Kevin Davis, the former CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News and now a consultant for news organizations, says nonprofit news outlets should always make sure their business deals are buttoned up and ready for scrutiny given what they do for a living.

“This will not be the last time that an individual or entity unhappy with reporting by nonprofits goes after the nonprofit’s funders or partners as a means of attacking them,” he said.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.