A libel lawsuit against local political activists over 2012 election mailers is an attempt to suppress free speech, an Orange County Superior Court judge said Friday.
Judge David Chafee dismissed a complaint filed by Marblehead outlet mall developer Steven Craig, saying that defendant Charles Mann and his Watchdog political action committee defamed Craig in October campaign mailers.
“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," reads an email statement by defendant with his wife and co-defendant Jeri Mann. "This is great news for the First Amendment in San Clemente in a political environment in which outside special interests wield tremendous power.”
The judge agreed with the defendant's arguments, saying Craig's lawsuit was a "strategic lawsuit against public participation" or "SLAPP," which there are laws prohibiting.
"Because 'the right to speak on political matters is the quintessential subject of our constitutional protection of the right of free speech,' anti-SLAPP law has been applied to actions arising from political literature," Chafee wrote in his opinion.
Craig complained over a 2012 campaign flyer titled "Voter Alert" sent to thousands of San Clemente residents in October to slam San Clemente City Council incumbent Jim Dahl and candidate Mike Mortenson. Both men lost to current Mayor Bob Baker and Chris Hamm, which Watchdog favored.
Craig's planned mall will sit adjacent to the I-5 freeway within the larger planned residential development—Dahl and Mortenson's campaign signs were visible on that property from the I-5 during the election.
The city has approved the mall plans, but some have worried Craig would attempt to install large digital billboards along the freeway. Although no such proposal has been submitted recently, it became an issue in the November election. Residents in 2007 successfully sued to stop a variance allowing large billboards on the site, Mann said.
Craig will have to pay for Watchdog's attorneys' fees as a result of the verdict, Mann said.