A San Clemente political action committee is launching a First Amendment fight against the developer of the Marblehead outlet mal for suing the committee over statements on 2012 City Council campaign mailers.
The Watchdog for San Clemente Responsible Government, run by local activists Charles and Jeri Mann, is asking a judge to throw out a lawsuit by developer Steve Craig, saying his defamation suit amounts to an effort to stifle the group's first amendment rights.
"A large, well-financed real estate developer and one of his many corporations are suing a small, local citizens' political committee and those affiliated with it in order to punish and intimidate them and chill their political speech," the legal filing states.
The lawsuit also named several individual PAC donors and donor companies as defendants.
Charles Mann's lawyers are arguing that Craig's defamation suit over October campaign mailers is a "strategic lawsuit against public participation," a recognized legal term that describes slander, libel or defamation lawsuits -- usually by corporate or business entities -- against citizens or groups who speak out against their interests. California has "anti-SLAPP" laws on the books that the defendants cite in addition to case law.
At issue is 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, it became an issue in the November election.
Craig's complaint states that Mann and his Watchdog for San Clemente Responsible Government PAC fabricated a direct quote from Craig: "I like Mike when he approves my ugly freeway signs," which "implies that this candidate's vote has been bought by monetary contributions from plaintiffs."
Mann argues, in the Anti-Slapp motion, however, "no reasonable person could ever believe that this was Plaintiff's actual quotation." Furthermore, he says Craig was never identified by name and that the quote was attributed to "Outlet Mall Developer."
Mann's filing also argues that the mailers never implied any criminal conspiracy to give unreported campaign donations, as Craig accuses, but used devices such as "playful 'SOLD' signs" to convey the message that "Dahl and Mortenson had sold out their integrity."
The filings, which are included with Watchdog's motion to ask the judge to scrap the case, make a number of legal arguments defending the mailers, saying the suit violates anti-SLAPP laws, that exaggeration is a protected form of political speech and that because Craig has inserted himself into numerous political debates in San Clemente and throughout the county, he qualifies as a public figure. The law states public figures have to meet a higher burden to prove they were defamed or libeled.
Late last year Mann publicly apologized for misstatements about the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce in his 2012 campaign mailers. They stated, "[The Chamber of Commerce] PAC spent $4,000 on [Mortenson's] campaign. SC Taxpayers funded it."
Using tax money for campaign contributions is illegal, and the chamber PAC is made up of separate voluntary donations from chamber members. The Chamber receives money from the city each year in the form of contracts for various city booster-type publications and signs.
Mann said the alleged Craig defamation is very different from the inaccuracy regarding the chamber for which he apologized.
"If we do things technically incorrect like we did with the chamber, I'm the first one to admit it," he said in a phone interview Monday. "Steve Craig implied that we were defaming him when we never even named him anywhere."
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Is this a case of protected , or do you think the PAC is guilty of defamation?