Blogger wins free speech battle, Cal Poly dean loses
May 21, 2011
By LISA RIZZO
The former Cal Poly College of Engineering dean who filed a defamation lawsuit against numerous defendants and the university loses round one and is ordered to pay a defending San Luis Obispo blogger nearly $17,000 on the grounds of freedom of speech in the public interest.
“We might not like peoples’ opinions or point of view – but this is the reason we have the first amendment,” said the blogger, Roger Freberg, who won the anti-strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) motion Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court and was awarded $16,958 for legal fees and his trouble, nearly $5,000 more than he asked for.
“The Saudi Arabia/Cal Poly issue was of social significance and it was very important to have it aired in the community,” Freberg continued.
In December, the former Cal Poly College of Engineering dean, Mohammad Noori, 57 at the time, launched a legal battle against Freberg and several other defendants: California State University Board of Trustees, Cal Poly, Cal Poly Interim Provost Robert Koob, Cal Poly Professor Unny Menon, and CalCoastNews Reporter and journalist Karen Velie claiming issues such as racial discrimination, defamation and wrongful termination.
Faced with Noori’s lawsuit which was served on Christmas Eve, Freberg filed an anti-SLAAP motion claiming the former Cal Poly dean was trying to censor, intimidate and silence him, by burdening him with the cost of a legal defense until he acquiesced.
On Tuesday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Jan Levine agreed with Freberg and ordered Noori to pay the blogger’s cost to defend himself, a typical result of a SLAAP victory. In her tentative ruling the judge said all of Noori’s claims against Freberg “all arise out of constitutionally protected speech in connection with an issue of public interest.”
Freberg said Noori’s attorneys tried to settle their suit against him prior to the May 17 hearing. But Freberg said he was not interested in the offer which would have required him to sanitize all mention of Noori from the blog, and agree to never speak or write about Noori in the future.
In California, bloggers are given more latitude in their writing than journalists because it is supposed that journalists are trained or educated about libel laws. If a person wants to make a claim against any arguably libelous material on a blog or news site they must first contact the site administrator and request removal of the content prior to filing suit, something Noori did not do.
In her tentative ruling Tuesday, Judge Levine said, “Plaintiff (Noori), failing to file any opposition, could not demonstrate any likelihood of prevailing on the merits.”
Meanwhile, CalCoastNews journalist Velie says she has not been served with the lawsuit although she has received letters from Noori’s San Marino based legal team, The Mathews Law Group, alluding to mounting and costly legal challenges against her if she does not agree to remove all mention of Noori from CalCoastNews.
“It is typically quite expensive and time consuming to hire an attorney and to defend against claims alleged against you,” said Attorney Deborah Hoetger in a letter to Velie.
“Our proposal is to provide you with the opportunity to be released from any potential legal liability for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress in exchange for the removal of all material from CalCoastNews that reference Dr. Noori in any way.”
Velie says she stands by her reporting so she refused the offer and will not have the articles mentioning Noori removed from CalCoastNews.
Following the ruling of Freberg’s anti-SLAPP motion, the judge also ruled in favor of a motion made by the California State University Board of Trustees that argued the case against them should not have been filed in Los Angeles County.
In his lawsuit, Noori cited a dozen allegations including racial and religious discrimination, harassment, defamation and wrongful termination.
Critics claimed Noori’s efforts were endorsing discrimination while his subsequent lawsuit contends he was being discriminated against for being Muslim. However, at an Academic Senate Executive Committee meeting a few years ago, Noori told attendees that he was not Muslim.
Noori said his complaints were prompted by his colleagues’ response and ensuing media coverage in 2008 surrounding his controversial efforts, later deemed unsuccessful, to negotiate with a university in Jubail, Saudi Arabia to help begin an engineering program there.
At issue was the fact that the Saudi proposal appeared to limit in a discriminatory manner those who could participate, as Velie reported in a February 14, 2008 CalCoastNews article headline, “An intriguing Cal Poly/Saudi project if you’re not a woman, Jewish or gay.”
The article detailed the proposed Cal Poly agreement to develop the engineering program at the Saudi university and uncovered a firestorm of controversy that was brewing over the fact that women, Jewish people and gays would be excluded. As Velie unveiled, the co-venture pitted a department head and a handful of administrators backing the project against an apparent majority of the Engineering College faculty.
In several posts on Freberg’s website, www.rogerfreberg.com, the blogger used sarcasm as he commented in opposition of the proposed Saudi pact in articles such as “Cal Poly to marry 10 year old girls to older men! you won’t see this on Google, but maybe Yahoo!” and “Who’s REALLY embarrassing Cal Poly?”
Noori said he suffered loses in earnings and “continues to suffer embarrassment, humiliation, and mental anguish” for what transpired. In his lawsuit he alleges the defendants acted with an “evil motive.”
He is seeking punitive damages.
If Noori elects to continue his legal battle with any success, he needs to re-file in San Luis Obispo County.