Torres’ price for attempting to silence public debate
October 11, 2013
By KAREN VELIE
Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo’s homeless services director’s attempt to stifle free speech could end up costing her an additional $41,930 for her opponent’s legal fees.
In September, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera dismissed Dee Torres’ lawsuit against Mike Brennler, a private investigator who had been working with CalCoastNews on articles about abuses of the homeless. LaBarbera found that Brennler’s statements were protected free speech and that Torres was unlikely to prevail in her suit.
At the conclusion of the hearing, LaBarbera ordered Brennler’s attorney Stew Jenkins to prepare, file, and serve a proposed judgment for legal fees.
“My work here has achieved a great deal,” Jenkins said in the fee motion he filed Wednesday. “Not only has it successfully protected the defendant, it has beat back a dark cold spreading chill perpetrated by this litigation against investigative reporting, press freedom and witness freedom to report facts and circumstances about public programs that are of important public interest within San Luis Obispo County.”
Torres filed the slander lawsuit earlier this year claiming Brennler defamed her character by repeating statements from multiple sources who said Torres pilfered gift cards, clothing and household items donated to the homeless.
Jenkins, who took the case without a retainer, battled back telling the court Torres had filed a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) aimed at silencing free speech through intimidation.
California’s anti-SLAPP statute serves to counteract the chilling effect that arises from overaggressive plaintiffs’ use of the judicial process. If a judge determines the lawsuit was an attempt to stifle free speech, the plaintiff is required to pay the defendant’s attorney fees and costs.
On April 11, several weeks after Torres filed her lawsuit against Brennler, an advertisement for a public relations professional to help change public opinion was placed on Cragslist, using the SlanderGuard logo On the same day, SlanderGuard posted a link to a San Luis Obispo Tribune article about Torres’ lawsuit on its FaceBook page, where the public relation’s firm appears to highlight its clients.
Shortly afterwards, posts began appearing on several online blogs with numerous demeaning and false allegations about Brennler and CalCoastNews staff.
“Torres’ aggressive attempts to abuse the discovery process in the anti-SLAPP proceeding subjected defendant to additional defense work and fees to successfully prosecute the motion,” Brennler says in his declaration. “It would have wiped me out financially and I would have had to risk losing my home to be able to field a defense to the frivolous suit brought against me by plaintiff attacking citizens’ rights to free speech, press, petition, consultation and instruction.”