California legislators passed a law in 1991 known as the "anti-SLAPP" statute to dispose of lawsuits at an early state of litigation that are primarily aimed at chilling speech. An issue that frequently arises is whether the alleged defamatory statement(s) is a matter of public interest. If so, the first prong of the statute is satisfied, and the burden shifts to plaintiff to demonstrate a probability of prevailing on the merits. This can be a difficult question at times, but the California Court of Appeal, Fifth District, did a great job of explaining it.
The case of Hailstone v. Martinez (2008) WL 5340989 (Cal.App. 5 Dist.), involved a claim by a former union employee for defamation. The former employee, Mr. Hailston, alleged that union officials falsely accused him of a crime and breaches of fiduciary duty.
The defendants filed an anti-SLAPP motion and the trial court denied it on the basis that the alleged defamatory statements did not constitute a matter of public concern.
Defendants appealed the lower court’s decision and it was affirmed, but for different reasons. The appellate court held that the alleged defamatory statements were a matter of public interest, but also that Plaintiff had shown a probability of prevailing on the merits.
Some interesting general principles from the court’s decision:
- ". . . public interest is not a mere curiosity . . . the matter should be something of concern to a substantial number of people . . ."
- ". . . there should be a degree of closeness between the challenged statements and the asserted public interest. The assertion of a broad and amorphous public interest is not sufficient . . ."
- ". . . the focus of the speaker’s conduct should be the public interest, not a private controversy. . ."
Here, the court determined that while the matter was of interest to only a limited but definable portion of the public, a union in this case, it was a matter of public interest nonetheless because there was an ongoing controversy (when the alleged statements were made) that was important to union members since the Plaintiff was still a trustee of a trust that provided health and welfare benefits to union members.
Whether a matter is of public interest, as one can see, is fact-sensitive and should be examined closely on a case-by-case basis.