LOS ANGELES — A former CNN employee has new life in seeking claims of alleged bias and discrimination against the media juggernaut after a recent ruling by the California Court of Appeal.
In a divided decision, according to www.bna.com, the court ruled on Dec. 13 that CNN could not dismiss fired writer and producer Stanley Wilson's case alleging racial bias against the network, court documents show. Wilson, a black man, originally sued CNN after being fired for allegedly plagiarizing parts of a news piece that never ran.
At the center of this case are Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP laws. These laws exist to provide extra protections for First Amendment activities. According to California anti-SLAPP laws, a case may be dismissed if a party's right to validly express free speech is infringed upon.
And that's exactly what happened the first time Wilson tried suing CNN, as the network argued that allowing Wilson's claims to proceed would affect it's First Amendment rights to defend against plagiarism. The Superior Court upheld that motion.
But the Court of Appeal begged to differ, saying that CNN had not fully satisfied the anti-SLAPP law. The case, according to the law's text, must show that a plaintiff's claim "arises in an act of furtherance" of an employer's free-speech rights in connection to public interest or issues.
The majority opinion, written by justices Elwood Lui and Victoria Chaney, said that the alleged discrimination against Wilson did not count as acts furthering CNN's free-speech rights. In short, it was decided that media companies have no right to invoke anti-SLAPP statutes against employees who claim discrimination that are in news-gathering or writing positions.
SLAPP law expert, attorney and University of San Diego School of Law guest lecturer James Moneer said this interpretation of anti-SLAPP statutes is incorrect.
"The majority justices, I can tell they're new," Moneer told The Northern California Record. "They either don't understand SLAPP or they're part of the camp of appellate courts that are trying to, I believe, reach a result ... and sort of just try to justify it later on."
Presiding Justice Frances Rothschild wrote in her dissenting opinion that the network was correct in applying the anti-SLAPP statutes against Wilson, because his job as a writer and producer of the news connects him to public interest. For purposes of the anti-SLAPP statutes, Rothschild said that Wilson's role at the company did indeed count as acts in furtherance of CNN's free-speech rights, as the network expresses free speech when reporting the news and Wilson's job was to help with that.
Furthermore, Rothschild wrote that Wilson's discrimination claim and anti-SLAPP lawsuit are not one in the same, but different items. Moneer said that is the correct interpretation of the situation.
"The first thing that the majority got wrong was it (the anti-SLAPP statute) is not an immunity defense, it's not an affirmative defense," Moneer said. "It doesn't bar a cause of action."
The divided court's opinion is representative of a long-standing split on interpreting public interest in a narrow or broad lens, according to Horitz and Levy partner and SLAPP law expert Jeremy Rosen.
"I think this case is right for review by the supreme court to resolve that split," Rosen told The Northern California Record. "Because if the Supreme Court doesn't, then courts of appeal are going to continue to go in completely different directions and not give consistent guidance to the lower courts and litigants."
That definition of what constitutes public interest is what this case is riding on, according to Moneer.
"You see the attorneys representing the media defendants ... they typically do a good job of getting these cases before the California Supreme Court and resolving these conflicts in favor of a broad, plain-language interpretation," Moneer said. "And that's really what's at stake here."