home

Sacramento Bee, The (CA) 

PUBLISHED 2009-04-12 CALIFORNIA FORUM METRO FINAL E3    


Orange Unified court victory benefits public 
By 
Michael T. Travis 

Contrary to the misguided conclusions in the March 14 editorial "Dissent takes a beating in court," the outcome of the so-called "Orwellian" legal dispute actually represents a victory for the public's right to hear the opinions of their elected officials.

The litigation arose out of the claim that the Orange Unified School District board in Southern California did not have the right to adopt a resolution of censure regarding one of its own members. Board member Steve Rocco threatened to fire a district employee during open session of a school board meeting. The board long maintained a policy that board members should not discuss such matters in open session. Rocco, as he did on a regular basis, ignored board policy and aired his personal grievances in a profoundly disrespectful and inappropriate manner.

The meeting was recorded, and copies were distributed for local cable television broadcast. Some of Rocco's comments were edited out of the television broadcast. The superintendent announced at the next board meeting that the original recording was not edited, and it remains available to anyone.

Other board members believed they needed to make a statement about Rocco's flagrant violation of board policy and his unwarranted humiliation of a district employee. The board members drafted a resolution censuring Rocco, sending a clear message that the rest of the board did not agree with him. The resolution, which did not prevent Rocco from speaking his mind, was thoroughly debated by the public, CalAware and its then-president, Richard McKee, before its adoption by the board.

The lawsuit against the district alleged numerous violations, including the First Amendment and the Ralph M. Brown Act. All of these allegations were rejected by the trial court, the Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court.

California law prohibits "strategic lawsuits against public participation," or lawsuits based on free speech. The board's publicly debated resolution and the district's television broadcast are classic examples of free speech protected by the anti-SLAPP law. The courts correctly determined that the board had a right to express its opinion just as Rocco did, and that CalAware, McKee and Rocco should be held responsible for the waste of public funds their lawsuit created.

Contrary to the editorial, lawmakers should be careful in considering any loopholes to the anti-SLAPP law. Creating one would defeat the important function of a law protecting the fundamental rights of free speech and expression for everyone in the state of California.

Michael T. Travis, an attorney for Parker & Covert LLP, represented the Orange Unified School District.