F: This is an election year. I saw a cartoon about Trump that was just insulting. Is anything possible – is everything okay legally?
A: Political speech is a right that is fundamentally defended by the First Amendment. If no actual malice can be proven in relation to a representation, the personality of public life or the politician is a fair game. An important case in this regard was decided in 1970 on the former mayor of Los Angeles, Sam Yorty. He sued the Los Angeles Times and its publisher for a caricature by famous editor Paul Conrad, arguing that Yorty was "crazy and should be put in a straitjacket". When the court rejected its defamation lawsuit, it ruled that opinions about a person's suitability for public office are protected, "though … (the) view is that of a political opponent and is shown in a rhetorical exaggeration." In addition, the court held that the cartoon should not be a literal representation and that sensible readers would know.
F: Can a tweet or online post actually lead to a defamation lawsuit?
-K.B., Long Beach
A: Defamation is a publication made to a third party that is not privileged (that is, subject to some legal protection), is false, and damages a person's reputation. There are two types of defamation: defamation that is oral and defamation that is written. A post on Twitter or generally online can be defamed for the simple reason that it may be as defined. There is nothing so different about social media from defaming someone in a letter (font) that is wrong and sent to one or more others.
This is a procedure established in California, which stands for "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation". The law is designed to prevent people from using the courts and potential legal threats to intimidate those who properly exercise their first-time adjustment rights. If a person is sued, they file a strike request because it is a speech on a subject of public interest. The plaintiff or plaintiffs then have the immediate burden of showing the court a probability that he or she will prevail in the lawsuit. This means that it often has to be demonstrated very early that a plausible result is likely for the plaintiff. If the plaintiff is unable to do so, this is the end of this claim and the plaintiff may have to pay attorney fees to the other side.
Ron Sokol is a Manhattan Beach lawyer with more than 35 years of experience. His column, which appears in print on Wednesdays, contains a summary of the law and should not be interpreted as legal advice. Email questions and comments to RonSEsq@aol.com.
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