The California Court of Appeal recently dismissed former American Idol contestant Corey Clark’s claims against Radar Online, LLC (“Radar”), concluding that Radar’s anti-SLAPP motion should have been granted.
In 2003, Clark was a contestant on the national television singing competition American Idol. Clark was eventually removed from the competition due to his purported failure to report his arrest for the alleged battery against his sister. In December 2013, Clark engaged in negotiations with Radar to provide an exclusive interview about his removal from American Idol. Radar interviewed Clark and reviewed documents that he claimed disproved the allegations regarding his battery charges and failure to disclose those charges to American Idol. Clark and Radar did not reach an agreement, however, and Clark provided an exclusive interview to another media outlet.
Radar subsequently published an article online discussing controversial American Idol events, which included a statement about Clark. Clark claimed that the publication’s statements regarding him beating up his sister, the reason for leaving American Idol, and characterization of his arrest as a legal mess were false. After Radar refused to retract the statement and issue an apology, Clark sued for libel per se/defamation and false light/invasion of privacy.
Radar filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which the trial court denied. The appellate court reversed after applying the two-step test to determine whether the claims should be stricken: (1) whether the defendant made a threshold showing that the challenged conduct was in furtherance of the defendant’s right of petition or free speech in connection with a public issue, and (2) whether the plaintiff has demonstrated a probability of prevailing on his claim.
With respect to the first step, the court agreed that Radar’s website was a public forum. The court further concluded that Clark’s dismissal and arrest were issues of public interest because they concerned a person in the public eye and the casting of a popular television program. In reaching that decision, the court rejected Clark’s argument that there was no public interest since the issues were relevant only to a limited portion of the public. The court reasoned that not only was American Idol widely watched, but that public interest can be established solely by interested television fans. The court also rejected Clark’s assertion that public interest could not be established given that too much time had passed. The court found that Clark could not claim there was no ongoing controversy when Clark had actively sought public attention and attempted to rekindle the discussion on the issues of his arrest and removal from American Idol with media outlets.
With respect to the second step, the court concluded that Clark had failed to meet his burden to show the likelihood of success of the merits of his claim because he never presented any evidence on that issue. Rather, Clark had briefed only the first step at both the trial and appellate courts.
The court nonetheless found that Clark could not succeed on his defamation and false light claims. Defamation involves the intentional publication of a factual statement that is false, unprivileged, and injurious. When coupled with a claim for defamation, a false light claim is superfluous and stands and falls with the defamation claim. Because the challenged statements concerned a matter of public interest, Clark bore the burden of proving that the challenged statements were false, which he failed to do.
The appellate court found that the trial court had erred in its analysis of the challenged statements. In denying the Radar’s anti-SLAPP motion, the trial court had focused on the first line of the article – which stated “Corey Clark Disqualified After Beating Up Sister” – and found the phrase false because Clark had been removed due to his alleged failure to disclose his arrest to American Idol. The appellate court explained that the lower court should not have analyzed the publication in fragments, but rather, should have read the article as a whole. The court concluded that when read as a whole, it was clear to the reader that Clark had been removed from American Idol due to his purported failure to disclose his arrest for allegedly battering his sister. Despite the “slight miswording” of the initial phrase, the substance of the article was accurate.
The court further reasoned that even if the publication had represented that Clark had beat his sister, Clark failed to prove that fact was materially false. The court observed that Clark’s declaration did not contain an affirmative denial that he beat up his sister, but rather, left open the possibility that he had beat her.