A judge has rejected the city of Newport Beach’s argument that a frequent critic’s defamation lawsuit is an affront to the city’s right to free speech.
Judge Thomas Delaney of the small-claims division of Orange County Superior Court denied the city’s anti-SLAPP motion Tuesday because the lawsuit is a small-claims case and anti-SLAPP motions are not proper small-claims actions.
SLAPP is short for strategic lawsuit against public participation, which is one intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with legal costs until they abandon their criticism or opposition. California has a law against such suits on the grounds that they may impede freedom of speech.
The city filed its motion in a bid for dismissal of a slander and libel case that activist Mike Glenn filed against it this year after City Councilwoman Diane Dixon called him out during a council meeting about hundreds of dollars in unpaid public-records fees that Glenn insists he doesn’t owe.
On Tuesday, Delaney conducted a trial of less than an hour on the merits of Glenn’s defamation lawsuit. Dixon did not attend, sending City Clerk Leilani Brown as her representative.
The verdict was pending Tuesday evening.
Small-claims trials are relatively speedy, inexpensive and informal proceedings where participants typically represent themselves. When Glenn sued in August, he said he chose small-claims court because it would place no costly legal burden on the city.
He is seeking $5,000 in damages, which he said he would donate to charity.
Glenn’s chief complaint was that Dixon defamed him when she said from the dais at an April 11 council meeting that he owed more than $600 in fees for copies of public records he had requested the previous two years and hadn’t picked up. She said more than 500 hours of staff time had been devoted to producing the records.
Glenn replied that he never asked to pick up copies of the records.
Glenn also accused Newport Beach Assistant City Clerk Jennifer Nelson of committing libel when she sent Glenn an email, copied to two other city employees, telling him he had not paid $619.93 the city said he owed for records related to the city-run Balboa Peninsula Trolley.
Glenn, who has been critical of the shuttle and its costs, had just spoken about the service during the public comment portion of the April meeting when Dixon told him he owed the city money.
Glenn, a software developer, said the implication that a small-business owner like himself doesn’t pay his bills damaged his reputation.
In its unsuccessful motion for dismissal, the city said Dixon’s comments were about the use of taxpayer dollars, which is a matter of public concern. It also contended that Glenn was unlikely to prevail in his lawsuit because Dixon’s comments were “substantially true” and were made in the legally protected setting of a City Council meeting while doing the public’s business.