Jim Cogan, Pomona
Bullying arises in many guises. Sometimes it surfaces from a selfish, dominating student bent on demolishing the wit, cleverness and character of a creative classmate. It is demonstrated daily by freeway drivers who roar down the road, intimidating and endangering lawful motorists with tail-gaiting, cut-ins and exhibitions of speed. The political arena is a beacon for bullies. As a former resident of the wonderful Shorecliffs community in San Clemente, I stood with my neighbors and personally experienced what I believed was a calculated campaign of verbal intimidation, threats and promises of lawsuits designed to silence our freedom of speech in defense of our homes during the referendum on height limits not too many years ago.
A new kind of bullying bent on punishing and silencing opponents sadly appears to have resurfaced in San Clemente. The reaction to it, I believe, is a tribute to San Clemente’s defense of freedom of expression in the political arena; a right I heartily support.
A recent ‘libel’ action filed against Charles and Jeri Mann and their Watchdog colleagues over the wording of a mailer the group sent out during this past election smelled very much like a SLAPP suit to this observer. A SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) is often used by a bitter, occasionally vengeful, frequently well-funded group or individual as retribution after a failed political action or to silence opponents during a campaign by forcing them to mount a costly legal defense or be cowed to mute their freedom of speech out of fear and financial worry. The savvy, metaphorical, provocative mailer raised important concerns about where political money comes from, how special interests support their candidates and raised questions about the affect this process has on public policy and personal ethics; concerns that have arisen all across the nation for decades. A classic example of the effective use of language and art, the mailer was a legitimate effort to raise awareness of these important issues in a political contest.
Apparently, some felt that the language of this traditional political mailer was libelous. A defamation suit was filed. The ill-advised, anti-democratic and counter-productive waste-of-the-court’s-time action that followed gave the appearances to this writer of an effort to intimidate and bully the mailer’s creators into future silence.
However, the intended “target” refused to be intimidated.
Charles and Jeri Mann responded fearlessly with a powerful defense of freedom of speech. They counter-filed an anti-SLAPP suit using a landmark 1992 California law that specifically protects folks from malicious prosecution by directing the courts to dismiss a meritless lawsuit and require the authors and attorneys of such action to pay full costs and damages to their intended target.
The court agreed. American politics has a healthy tolerance for most all forms of speech. There is ample opportunity for rebuttals in a public debate. Political ads like the Watchdog piece and many, many others from all political perspectives have added color and spice to San Clemente’s vibrant, democratic process for decades. Read the mailer. “Follow the Money,” “Outlet Mall Developer,” “I Like Mike” (Remember ‘I Like Ike’?), “Ugly Freeway Signs”, “SOLD.” Never heard that before, eh? Real scandalous stuff, huh? Is there a claim of criminality? Illegality? What a boring, useless, sterilized process political debate would be if people were too afraid to speak their minds about controversial issues. Libelous? Good grief, Charlie Brown…get a life.
Folks might read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s delicious book about Lincoln era politics of 150 years ago, Team of Rivals, or see the terrific film Lincoln to get a feel for how strong and colorful political speech was then; little of which ever became grounds for a successful S.L.A.P.P. suit but all of which added to a candid, outspoken airing of issues the likes of which has sustained our democracy.
Meritless libel actions often speak volumes about the true philosophy and attitude of their authors. Courageous,s legal, effective, counter-action is exactly what California’s anti-S.L.A.P.P. laws offer the Everyman of our society to deal with litigious bullies.
Kudos for Charles Mann, Jeri Mann and James Smith for showing us all how to fight for our freedom to speak our minds and stand up against political bullying.