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Judge Tosses Lawsuit Against 'Watchdog' PAC

An Orange County Superior Court Judge ruled Friday that a lawsuit against local political activists claiming defamation was an attempt to quash free speech.

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.

Dave February 26, 2013 at 07:05 PM
Mann spent a lot of time and money on a campaign that did not even effect the zip code in which he resides. He had something to win in this thing and I highly doubt it was out of the goodness of his heart. He has already issued a public apology to the San Clemente chamber of commerce who had threatened legal action against him. This election was ugly and it really came across as there was more to it than a simple election. He who smears the best wins politically and Mann apparently knows this craft well.
Lindsey Hanson February 27, 2013 at 12:45 AM
Well dave that's one way to look at it. I on the other hand with many many more by my side feel grateful for all of Mann's efforts to preserve our village. I am so glad Dahl and his cronies are outta of office. In regards to the trial, if you feel you can do a better job as judge I urge you to pass the Bar and become one. The judge ruled fair and square. Mr. Marblehead was just mifted his buddies were sniffed out.
Dave February 27, 2013 at 01:14 AM
So Linsdey, you do you not find it odd than a guy who does not live in the town himself spearheaded a smear campaign against a local city councilman? I'm perfectly fine with dahl being gone as well, but I do find it odd at how much Mann invested into a local campaign in a neighbor city that in comparrison to the other beach cities may as well be Mayberry. The conspiracy theorist in me smells a rat.
Jeri Mann February 27, 2013 at 01:57 AM
My name is Jeri Mann - we have lived in this town and had our telephone number here since 1983. Are you just stupid or live only by conspiracy theories?
Dave February 27, 2013 at 02:29 AM
^^^^ Classy. Oh, and nice dodge on everything else btw. Why is it an apology was given to the chamber?
Lindsey Hanson February 27, 2013 at 02:41 AM
Dave you sound crazy now. The Mann's own a lovely town n the middle of town.
Dave February 27, 2013 at 03:03 AM
You are right - the Manns do own this town. (JK) Lindsey, crazy in what regard? If you are friends with them fine, but did you or did you not know about Mann's public apology to the chamber? Why do you think it was issued?
Lindsey Hanson February 27, 2013 at 03:56 AM
I do know about the apology and I did not agree it needed to be made. I don't hang out with the Manns but we do side on many subjects. I have a question for you. Are you aware of any of the other campaigns Mann has been involved with? Question # 2. What is your personal vendette with Mann. Do you think he acts alone?
Lindsey Hanson February 27, 2013 at 03:58 AM
Crazy in that you are on a public wesite making false accusations about someone you claim is making false accusations. And the town town auto correct is funny. Dang technology.
Dave February 27, 2013 at 04:31 AM
Yeah, I was just kidding about the town thing. The false accusation claim is ironic. That is exactly why they issued their own public apology to the chamber if memory serves me right. There is no denying that the Manns put out a mammoth effort to defeat both Dahl and Mortenson. They were also heavy players in the defeat of the north beach project. Ironically once again, I believe it was the same developer (that Mann smeared) who recently received public praise by the city of Costa Mesa for a project completed up there. Meanwhile, north beach here continues to look like an armpit. It could be a simple difference of ideologies, but Mann (and Wayne Eggleston) have done everything in their collective power (and influence) to keep any growth in San Clemente from happening. They have used scare tactics (HB South) and spent a lot of money doing so. The Mann's when speaking publicly have been brash and arrogant in their tone. Ms Mann displayed it herself just a few posts above. They may believe they can win with their bullying tactics ( I suppose they have), but it won't work on everyone. These are public forums for opinions and I am giving mine.
Dave February 27, 2013 at 05:02 AM
Lindsey, I don't think that Mann acts alone. I do think though that in a tiny town like this one that someone like Mann can become a big fish very easily and I do not think that is a very healthy thing. In my opinion, way too much money was spent by that pac during that last election cycle. Who knows who donated money to it either. It could be all special interest for all we know. I think it hurts the system. Mann chose to put himself up front and center so I have no sympathy for either he nor his wife. They love a good grandstand moment and the article today proves that in my opinion. Even their apology letter was condescending in tone. Of course I don't think he is acting alone. Eggleston seems to be a willing partner in a lot of it as well. Did you see what Evrt had to say in regards to it all? I thought it to be very interesting. Nice talking with you Lindsey.

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