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Judge tosses cartoonist’s claims he was defamed by L.A. Times journalists and former publisher

A judge threw out key parts of a defamation and wrongful termination lawsuit on Wednesday brought against the Los Angeles Times by freelance cartoonist Ted Rall.

The nationally syndicated cartoonist, whose work once appeared regularly in The Times, filed suit last year alleging that the newspaper defamed him by calling into question the veracity of his work.

Acting on a motion by The Times, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph R. Kalin dismissed Rall’s claims of defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress against three current Times journalists and former Publisher Austin Beutner.

The case stemmed from a May 11, 2015, blog post written by Rall and published alongside one of his cartoons on The Times’ OpinionLA blog. In the piece, Rall criticized a Los Angeles Police Department crackdown on jaywalking and recounted his experience being ticketed for the offense in 2001.

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“This one is personal,” Rall wrote, saying a police officer had pushed him against a wall and thrown his driver’s license into the sewer during the encounter. Rall wrote that “a couple of dozen passersby” gathered to shout at the officer.

The LAPD disputed Rall’s account.

In a July 28, 2015, note to readers, Nicholas Goldberg, editor of The Times’ editorial pages, said LAPD records, including Rall’s written complaint from 2001 and the officer’s audiotape of the encounter, “raise serious questions about the accuracy” of Rall’s post.

There was no evidence of shouting onlookers, Goldberg wrote, and the tape depicted “a polite interaction.”

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“Rall’s future work will not appear in The Times,” Goldberg wrote.

In his lawsuit, Rall challenged The Times’ account and questioned the authenticity of the audio recording.

In court Wednesday, Rall’s attorney, Nare Avagyan, argued that after The Times published the editor’s note and a more detailed explanation to readers a month later, her client was “shunned by his peers.”

Avagyan maintained that Rall wasn’t a well-known media figure, so it wasn’t necessary for the newspaper to explain its concerns about his blog post.

“That is not an issue of public interest,” she said, calling Rall a “behind-the-scenes cartoonist.”

Kalin interjected with a question: “Were his cartoons signed?”

“Yes,” she responded. The judge nodded.

During the hearing, Kelli Sager, an attorney for The Times, cited California’s 1992 anti-SLAPP law, designed to protect free-speech rights and prevent frivolous lawsuits. SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”

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Sager said the newspaper couldn’t be held liable for defamation for reporting on official records — in this case, the police audiotape and documents released by the LAPD. She also argued that Rall had failed to prove The Times published anything false about him.

Rall can appeal Kalin’s ruling. The judge has yet to rule on other parts of the lawsuit — including allegations of wrongful termination and defamation against The Times’ current and former corporate owners.

Outside the courtroom, Rall said he hoped his case would catch the attention of the state Legislature, contending that The Times’ motion was an example of a big company using the SLAPP law against a “$300-a-week cartoonist.”

“Obviously I’m disappointed by the decision,” Rall said.

Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

For more news from the Los Angeles County courts, follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber

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