USDC C.D. Cal., January 14, 2008

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The district court granted the defendants’ anti-SLAPP motions regarding allegedly defamatory statements made about the plaintiff on the web site The Smoking Gun and during a VH1 news program, and dismissed the plaintiff’s claims. (An anti-SLAPP motion is similar to a motion to dismiss and, according to the opinion, is intended to dismiss baseless lawsuits aimed at deterring the exercise of political or legal rights, such as free speech.)

The plaintiff, who is a psychotherapist and appeared on the reality television show The Swan, obtained her Ph.D. from an unaccredited school that provides degrees for a flat fee. The Smoking Gun reported that the plaintiff received her degree from a school that was the subject of a recent government report on “diploma mills,” and VH1 broadcast a similar news story, with interviews of one of the editors of The Smoking Gun and another psychotherapist. The plaintiff sued the owner of The Smoking Gun, VH1, and the two interviewees for defamation. The defendants moved to dismiss the claims under Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 425.16, known as the anti-SLAPP statute. Under this provision, the defendants must make a threshold showing that the challenged cause of action is one arising from protected activities; the court then turns to the question of whether the plaintiff has demonstrated a probability of prevailing on the claim.

The court found that the defendants’ statements were a form of protected speech and then examined each of the five allegedly defamatory statements. The court concluded that the statement on The Smoking Gun about California Coast University’s degree programs not being accredited, taken from the school’s catalogue, was true and therefore not actionable. The statement that the plaintiff received her degree from a school that was described in a government report and in Congressional hearings as a “diploma mill” was privileged speech under Cal. Civ. Code § 47(d), which protects fair and true reports of legislative or other public official proceedings.

The court also found The Smoking Gun statement that the plaintiff “is not a doctor, she just plays one on TV” to be hyperbole and a play on words and thus constitutionally protected. A statement on the VH1 program about the government report was also found to be protected speech under § 47(d). The statement made by another psychotherapist on the VH1 program – “When I hear about people presenting themselves as something they are not, I think that is something totally unacceptable” – is a general statement that “cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about Plaintiff.”

The court also concluded that the plaintiff is a public figure and that she would have to prove that the statements were made with actual malice to prevail on her defamation claims.