Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
— First Amendment
One of the frequently forgotten five rights enumerated in the First Amendment is the right to “petition government for a redress of grievances.” The means of doing so may well include the use of two other rights found there, free speech and press.
To make these rights abundantly clear Nevada lawmakers passed what is called an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) statute.
A Northern Nevada judge used that statute this week to summarily slap down a lawsuit brought by a choir teacher in Churchill County against the editors of a high school newspaper and a local newspaper, as well as several school officials. The teacher’s suit claimed articles in the Churchill County High School’s The Flash and the Lahonton Valley News — about a controversy over whether she failed to forward audition tapes of qualified students for an honor choir — defamed her. She and her union unsuccessfully tried to get school administrators to block publication of the school newspaper article.
In a strongly worded ruling Judge William Rogers found the litigation utterly without merit, writing that the motion to dismiss may not be overcome “on the gossamer threads of whimsy, speculation and conjecture.”
He went on the spell out that as a school teacher the plaintiff is public figure under Times v. Sullivan and had to show the statements about her were either untrue or made with malice or reckless disregard for the truth. He found she had not shown any of the statements to be untrue.
Judge Rogers concluded, “The Court finds that the Defendants have shown that this action is based on good faith communications made in furtherance of the right to petition the government; that the statements in the articles were substantially truthful or is made without knowledge of any falsehood.”
Three out of five ain’t bad.
Look for an op-ed piece on this topic in Sunday’s Review-Journal by Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno and former executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News.