A California judge has thrown out the libel suit filed against American Journalism Review senior contributing writer Susan Paterno by the owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press.
The News-Press and its parent company, Ampersand Publishing, filed suit in December 2006 after Paterno wrote about turmoil at the newspaper in her AJR story "Santa Barbara Smackdown" (December 2006/January 2007). Staff members interviewed for the article gave insight into the emotional and ethical upheaval at the News-Press under the ownership of Wendy McCaw.
The article stated that McCaw, who bought the paper from the New York Times Co. in 2000, "began whacking away, her lieutenants firing one editor after another, presiding over the dismissal or resignation of five publishers in five years, destroying friendships, families and livelihoods."
According to Paterno's attorney, Charles Tobin, Ampersand cited 33 allegedly defamatory passages in the article. In early 2007, the trial judge, Orange County Superior Court Judge H. Warren Siegel, threw out 29 of the claims, and in June the California Court of Appeal determined that none of the remaining four could support a defamation claim. The case was sent back to the trial court, and Siegel dismissed it September 24.
"There was nothing incorrect or false in that story," Paterno said. "This was just a journalist telling the truth."
AJR, which was not named in the suit, covered Paterno's legal fees.
Paterno praised AJR Editor and Senior Vice President Rem Rieder for standing behind her, adding: "AJR deserves credit, as does Chuck Tobin, who doggedly pursued the case."
Rieder said in the 13 years he has worked with Paterno, she has been consistently meticulous and fair. He says he never doubted the accuracy of her piece. "She wrote that story for us, and you've got to back your writer," he said. "Of course, it was easy to do, because she's a terrific journalist."
Tobin says the next issue to be addressed is attorney's fees. According to Tobin, Paterno is entitled to recover legal costs under California's Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute. A hearing on the issue will be held on October 29.
Ampersand's attorney, Barry Cappello, said, "We disagree with the original decision and intend to go up on appeal."
"Just like any other institution, the media need to be open to scrutiny," Tobin said. "The court agreed with us that it's a real 'shame on you' moment when a publisher tries to chill expression of opinion about how it's doing its job."