PAC Says Developer Suit Stifles Free Speech

A local activist group says the developer of the planned Marblehead outlet mall is trying to quash their First Amendment rights by suing over political mailers.

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."


Is this a case of protected , or do you think the PAC is guilty of defamation?

Bob Cooney January 29, 2013 at 07:14 AM
When you play loose and fast with the truth, you run the risk of getting slapped.
Sas Lerrel January 29, 2013 at 04:07 PM
Charles Mann came into San Clemente a few years ago and has become an annoying trouble maker, never following the letter of the law or the spirit of it. His agenda rules his actions and it's time he faces the consequences. He's a classic example of how dirty local politics has become.
george gregory January 29, 2013 at 05:03 PM
gee if I didn't have to pay a mortgage or rent like the chamber id like Dahl also I saw the signs with I like mike on them and believe the one at Pico and el Camino went up that way I just thought and still do think it was reaffirming vanity by mike
OCmomof3 January 29, 2013 at 07:43 PM
I’m not thrilled about an outlet mall in San Clemente, I don’t want more traffic and we’re already the discount trifecta with Walmart, Target and Kmart casing in the North side of town. But the deal is done; now it’s just sore losers wasting tax dollars at every turn. Charles Mann’s tactics are of the lowest ethical standards. First he sends out his Voter Alert mailer making false claims about the Marblehead Developer and local politicians, and when they fire back with a lawsuit, he claims they’re quashing his Freedom of Speech? Freedom of Speech doesn’t equal making up lies to further your agenda. I used to think Charles Mann had a few good points, but now I think he’s gone from Watchdog to crazy rabid dog who barks at nothing.
jerry collamer January 29, 2013 at 11:00 PM
the Curse of Marblehead continues...developer beware. Its bridge to nowhere shadowing its moonlit canyon. Only the coyote knows.
Bill S January 30, 2013 at 05:47 AM
I personally appreciated the mailers. They stated the obvious thoughts of many people in a comically correct manner. If you were voting for the winners, how could you not snicker and thank them for putting the ink to paper and in the mail. Thank you for sending that brilliant political piece. Politics are dirty at all levels, particularly during an election with a sham candidate.
Kathleen Ward January 30, 2013 at 09:49 PM
I certainly didn't think there was any statement that implied monetary contributions from Steve Craig. Mike Mortenson put up banners that said "I like Mike" along with name tags, and he also had a newspaper add that stated "Who likes Mike?" I don't think it is surprising for someone to use that play-on-words in an ad for an opposing side. It makes sense to do so. Any concerns Steve Craig had with these mailers, he already addressed in a full-page ad dated November 1, 2012. He took that opportunity to address what he was concerned over and he publicly declared his position on these mailers. The last paragraph in his public statement is as follows: "Please know that I strongly support candidates for elected office that know how to utilize thoughtful, problem-solving, consensus building approaches to balance the interests of business and residents. I hope that you will join me in doing the same." Because Jim Dahl's and Mike Mortenson's candidate banners were the only signs on Mr. Craig's property, we can surmise who those candidates were that Mr. Craig described. He was asking us to join him in supporting them. He publicly supported these two candidates in his statement and he also publicly endorsed them by allowing them to display their banners on his property. Mr. Craig availed himself the opportunity to address this issue before the election took place. In my mind, the matter is done, except for the fact his two candidates did not prevail.


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