Victory For Blogger Patterico In Free Speech Case
Patrick Frey, also known as Patterico, has been living under the cloud of a frivolous, censorious, and thoroughly contemptible SLAPP suit seeking to chill his First Amendment rights.
Today he won.
Ron and I filed motions seeking to dismiss Nafe's original federal complaint. In December United States District Court Judge George Wu granted our motion to dismiss, but without prejudice — that is, he gave Naffe once chance to amend to see if she could state a valid claim.
We moved to dismiss her amended complaint on a variety of theories. Today we won. Judge Wu's tentative ruling with the meat of his decision is here, and his order of today confirming his tentative is here.
The Issues and The Ruling
I'm not going to explain the legal issues at length. I attached all the pleadings from the first round of briefing before, and the pleadings this time are below. If you want to get a sense of the case, I recommend reading our anti-SLAPP motion, our Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), and Judge Wu's order.
In brief: Naffe sued Frey for a violation of civil rights by the state under 28 U.S.C. Section 1983 (on the frankly ridiculous and disingenuous theory that he blogs as a Deputy District Attorney rather than as a private citizen), invasion of privacy through public disclosure (because Frey published on his blog deposition transcripts that were available in public court records online), false light invasion of privacy, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence. In her amended complaint she sued the County of Los Angeles on a theory of negligent supervision. She originally sued Patrick's wife for no discernible reason, and sued the former District Attorney of the County; this time it was just Patrick and the County. She had two theories of why she could be in federal court: because there was a federal question (her Section 1983 claim) and because there was diversity of citizenship (she's in Massachusetts, Frey's in California; diversity requires different states and at least $75,000 in damages).
We filed a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) (which argues, essentially, that even if everything in the complaint were true, she hasn't described a legal wrong), an anti-SLAPP motion under California law (arguing that her state law claims were attempts to censor speech, and that she could not succeed on them), a motion to dismiss her state law claims under Rule 12(b)(1) (arguing that she can't show $75,000 in damages, as is required for federal diversity jurisdiction, so there's no jurisdiction over the state law claims if her Section 1983 claim fails), and a motion to force her to post a bond under California law (in California, you can make a plaintiff from another state post a bond to cover costs if you win).
Federal judges tend to be conservative with jurisdiction: that is, they take only cases they must, and address only issues they must. Judge Wu ruled that (1) Naffe can't succeed on her Section 1983 claim — her only federal claim — because she didn't state facts showing that Patrick was a state actor when he was blogging as "Patterico", and (2) he wouldn't exercise jurisdiction over the state law claims, because Naffe failed to show that she suffered at least $75,000 in damages, as required for diversity jurisdiction. Based on those rulings, the judge didn't need to reach the anti-SLAPP motion or the bond motion.
The result: the Section 1983 civil rights claim is dismissed with prejudice, meaning Naffe can't re-file it. The state law claims are dismissed, but Naffe could re-file them in state court if she wanted. If she does we will file an anti-SLAPP motion there as well — and a motion for sanctions against both her and her attorneys. Naffe has already filed a notice of appeal, suggesting she may pursue an appeal in the Ninth Circuit rather than re-filing in state court. Bring it.
The Conduct of the Case
One of the most frustrating things about the case was that Naffe and her attorneys misrepresented the content of relevant blog and Twitter posts to the Court to suggest that Patrick was purporting to blog in his official capacity as a Deputy District Attorney, when in fact the documents showed the exact opposite. The best summary of what I mean is at pages 9-11 of this brief and page 2-3 of this brief. Even though we made that point very strongly, Naffe — tellingly — did not respond at all in her opposition briefs. It's rather unusual not to answer an accusation that you've attempted to mislead a federal judge Judge Wu noticed it as well. We didn't raise the issue of sanctions, but he did on his own. In footnote 5 he noted:
In paragraph 39 of the FAC [First Amended Complaint] Plaintiff quotes Frey as saying the following: "You owe [O'Keefe] @gamesokeefeiii a retraction. A big one. You'd better issue it promptly. [A threat made as a Deputy District Attorney]." FAC 39. The Court may consider the text of Frey's actual statement in connection with a Rule 12(b)(6) challenge. See Marder v. Lopez, 450 F.3d 445, 448 (9th Cir. 2006), Lee v. City of Los Angeles, 250 F.3d 668, 688-89 (9th Cir. 2001.). Notwithstanding Plaintiff's use of quotation marks, the language "[A threat made as a Deputy District Attorney]" does not appear in Frey's actual comment. See Frey Decl. (Docket No. 40), Exh. KK, at 266. The Court would consider issuing sanctions against Plaintiff and/or her attorneys for the contents of paragraph 39. [emphasis added]
And there's footnote 7. Noting that Frey wrote a tweet saying "My first task is learning what criminal statutes, if any, you have admitted violating," Judge Wu wrote:
In her Opposition brief, Plaintiff characterizes this as "Frey issu[ing] a direct threat against Ms. Naffe with Frey stating that he intended to investigate Ms. Naffe for possible criminal misconduct." Docket No. 53, at 11:18-21. Again, sanctions may very well be in play for Plaintiff's (and/or her counsel's) willingness to play fast-and-loose with the language that is actually at issue here. [Emphasis added]
Though Judge Wu did not ultimately award sanctions, I look forward to quoting those words on appeal or in a state court motion for sanctions if Naffe re-files there.
It's been an honor to represent Patrick pro bono. It's been a privilege to work with and learn from Ron Coleman. I appreciate the opportunity.
Observing commentary on the case has been . . . interesting. I'd divide the coverage into three camps. There are people who are supportive of Patrick, but whose coverage really doesn't delve into the legal issues. There are the vapid and dishonest partisan hacks who attack Patrick for political reasons, and who don't address the legal issues at all. There's the greasy, demi-literate, demented Hutt who wrote an extended quasi-sexual fantasy about a mob murdering Patrick and me. Fun!
There are many people out there who support free speech, so long as it's free speech they agree with. That's not really supporting free speech. It's nice that people on the right supported Patrick's free speech — I wish they all supported vigorous political speech from the left as well. I would also have been happier if more people on the left supported Patrick — or, at least, treated the stark free speech issues presented in the case seriously. I didn't defend Patrick because I always, or usually, or even often agree with him. He's to the right of me politically, and a prosecutor (and therefore reliably wrong on criminal justice issues), and I often disagree with him. I defended him because the First Amendment that lets him speak freely lets me speak as well. I defended him because malicious, frivolous, and politically motivated lawsuits aimed at censorship make it a little more dangerous for each of us to speak. I defended him pro bono because frivolous lawsuits can effectively censor people even when they eventually fail, because the expenses of lawsuits can be ruinous.
If you are happy with this result, and if you are happy that lawyers will represent people pro bono in free speech cases, I ask this favor: next time you have the chance, stand up for the free speech of someone whose views you despise. Speak up and fight back when someone advocates censorship. Respond to the Popehat Signal, or to any of the opportunities out there to support free speech — even speech that angers you. Even if you don't like this result, or you don't like Patrick's politics, or mine, I respectfully challenge you to review the free speech issues in the case. Think about them carefully and ask yourself: could I be accused of defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress for vigorously challenging someone with whom I disagree?
Appendix: Documents From This Phase Of The Case
Naffe's Opposition Briefs
Patrick's Reply Briefs
Judge Wu's Ruling
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