By Jim Shilander
Charles Mann has responded to Marblehead Coastal developer Steve Craig’s defamation lawsuit against him and his political organization, Watchdog for San Clemente Responsible Government, calling the suit an attempt “to punish and intimidate.”
“We, the San Clemente citizens who have been served with a lawsuit by the outlet mall developer for engaging in our constitutionally protected rights of free speech, are pleased to report that we will not allow big money to intimidate us from exercising our freedom of speech,” Mann wrote in an email to the San Clemente Times. “The City of San Clemente and its residents have had to put up for far too long with developers and certain all-too-friendly council members bullying us and forcing their unwanted developments on us.”
The suit stems from a flier produced by the organization during last year’s San Clemente City Council election campaign. Craig alleges that the flier created the impression he had given funds to candidates Mike Mortenson and Jim Dahl to influence a potential vote on allowing large signs for his proposed outlet mall project, which constituted defamation. The suit demands unspecified damages greater than $25,000.
Mann’s attorney, Bradley Hertz, states in the complaint (originally sent to Craig’s attorney last January 17, according to Mann) that the 11,000 fliers distributed by the organization through the mail and at public events is constitutionally protected political speech. The brief also states that because Craig had previously donated to city council candidate Steve Knoblock in 2008 and supported Mortenson and Dahl in the most recent election by allowing their signs to be placed on his property, he had “voluntarily inserted” himself into a public controversy. As such, Craig must prove “actual malice” was intended by the allegedly libelous statements in the fliers. Hertz states that Craig would not be able to prove such malice. The response asks that the original suit be dismissed.
Mann’s email to the SC Times stated that a hearing in the case is set for Friday, February 15, at 9:30 a.m. at Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana and that Judge David Chaffee may release a tentative ruling a day or so prior to the hearing based on the briefs presented by the attorneys for both sides.