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Lawsuit challenging Museum House petition can continue, judge rules

Newport Beach Assistant City Clerk Jennifer Nelson, center, and Administrative Assistant Jennifer Mu
Newport Beach Assistant City Clerk Jennifer Nelson, center, and administrative assistant Jennifer Mulvey count signatures submitted in December by Line in the Sand, an activist group that petitioned for a public vote on the planned Museum House condominium tower.
(File photo / Daily Pilot)

A lawsuit by the Orange County Museum of Art did not impinge on the free-speech rights of opponents of a condominium tower planned for the museum’s Newport Beach site who sought a referendum on the since-scuttled project, an Orange County Superior Court judge has ruled.

Judge Geoffrey Glass notified attorneys for both sides Friday that he had determined OCMA did not file what is known as a SLAPP suit when it challenged the validity of a petition circulated by activist group Line in the Sand, which opposed the luxury condo project called Museum House. SLAPP, which stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” is a type of suit intended to burden opponents until they drop their dissent. California is one of 28 states that have anti-SLAPP laws.

OCMA filed suit in January, claiming that Line in the Sand’s petition should be voided because it didn’t comply with state law. The suit argued that the petition didn’t contain all necessary documents and that its font size was “virtually unreadable.”

Had Glass agreed with Line in the Sand’s contention that the museum’s lawsuit was an attempt to silence its speech, the suit would have been dismissed. It now will go forward to be decided on its merits. Glass will be the judge in the case.

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Line in the Sand spokesman Tim Stokes did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Glass gave two reasons for denying Line in the Sand’s motion.

The group, as a political action committee, was not qualified to file the motion because it is not an individual, he said.

“Since it was (OCMA) who argued and therefore agrees that Line in the Sand is not the proper proponent of the measure, it begs the question as to why (OCMA) named Line in the Sand as a real party in interest in the first place,” Glass wrote in his decision. “That question, however, is for another day.”

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More importantly, Glass said, is that state law for the form and format of referendum petitions “does not overly burden the 1st Amendment right to petition the government. The statutes are content-neutral and simply require certain things in order to avoid confusing the electorate.”

Developer Related California was set to convert the art museum’s site in Newport Center into a 25-story, 100-unit condo tower. OCMA planned to move to a new location in Costa Mesa.

But after Line in the Sand collected more than enough voter signatures to take the Museum House issue to a public vote, the Newport Beach City Council earlier this year revoked the approval it had granted the project last year.

hillary.davis@latimes.com

Twitter: @Daily_PilotHD


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