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By Jim Shilander
A State Superior Court judge ruled Friday that campaign mailers sent out in last year’s City Council election were protected under the First Amendment.
Watchdog for San Clemente Responsible Government, the political group run by Charles and Jeri Mann, prevailed in its legal battle against Marblehead Coastal Commercial developer Steve Craig Friday over fliers the group produced during the City Council election last fall.
Orange County Superior Court Judge David Chafee ruled in favor of the Mann’s position that the fliers produced by the organization, which were distributed to approximately 11,000 homes in San Clemente last October, were protected under the Constitution, and did not constitute libel.
The fliers in question showed campaign signs of then-city councilman Jim Dahl and candidate Mike Mortenson next to a picture of a $1,000 bill with “Outlet Mall Developer” written on it. The flier instructed the reader to “Follow the Money.” Craig asserted the flier implied he had contributed to the two candidates illegally, since Craig did not make a publicly available donation to either candidate.
Elsewhere on the flier, a “Sold” stamp appeared on Mortenson’s name, along with a quote attributed to the outlet mall developer that read, “I like Mike when he approves my ugly freeway signs.” Craig said he never made such a statement and that Mann had implied a criminal conspiracy.
Chafee ruled that the Manns had met their assertion that their words were protected political speech.
“The campaign mailer at issue was plainly published in furtherance of the author’s ‘right… of free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue,'” Chafee wrote in his finding.
Chafee also ruled that Craig’s suit was unlikely to prevail on the merits of the claims.
“Without setting forth and discussing all necessary elements of their libel claim, it is difficult to see how plaintiffs can assert that they have established a probability of prevailing an their libel claim,” Chafee concluded.
Because Craig was a “limited public figure,” any libel claim must prove that the defendants intended “actual malice,” with knowledge that their statements were incorrect.
“Even if these statements are false, plaintiffs present no evidence that defendants made these statements with actual malice. The declarations of Dahl, Mortenson and Craig contain no evidence as to what defendants knew or did not know when the alleged false statements were made,” Chafee wrote.
Chafee also noted that although the Manns acknowledged false statements in another mailer about the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce, those did not establish actual malice.
The Manns have claimed that those statements, which implied a “kickback,” to Dahl for past city support of the Chamber, had been the result of a misunderstanding of the nature of the relationship between the Chamber and its political action committee.
In an email to the SC Times, Mann expressed relief at the result of the case.
“The Court’s ruling reinforced our belief that in our democracy, we have every right to inform voters about candidates and other outside interests who try to influence our local elections,” Mann wrote. “This is great news for the First Amendment in San Clemente in a political environment in which outside special interests wield tremendous power.”
Mann also indicated that as a result of the ruling, Craig will have to pay attorney’s fees for the watchdog group.
Craig’s attorney, David Sanner, indicated that his client “respectfully disagreed with the court’s conclusion,” noting particularly a disagreement with the contention that the Manns did not know the statements were false.
Sanner pointed to the Manns’ admission that the quotation praising Mortenson had been “concocted,” as well as having knowledge that Craig had not made any monetary contributions to the Mortenson or Dahl campaigns.
“We believe the defendants represented that they found contributions from everyone listed on that mailer with the notable exception of the outlet mall developer,” Sanner said.