Judge strikes part of suit filed by fired car­toon­ist

L.A. Times de­nies claims stem­ming from his blog on the LAPD.

Los Angeles Times - - CITY & STATE - By Marisa Ger­ber marisa.ger­ber @la­times.com Twit­ter: @maris­ager­ber Times staff writer Matt Hamil­ton con­trib­uted to this re­port.

A judge on Wed­nes­day threw out key parts of a defama­tion and wrong­ful ter­mi­na­tion law­suit brought against the Los Angeles Times by free­lance car­toon­ist Ted Rall.

The na­tion­ally syn­di­cated car­toon­ist, whose work once ap­peared reg­u­larly in The Times, filed suit last year al­leg­ing that the news­pa­per de­famed him by call­ing into ques­tion the ve­rac­ity of his work.

Act­ing on a mo­tion by The Times, Los Angeles County Su­pe­rior Court Judge Joseph R. Kalin dis­missed Rall’s claims of defama­tion and in­ten­tional inf lic­tion of emo­tional dis­tress against three cur­rent Times jour­nal­ists and for­mer Pub­lisher Austin Beut­ner.

The case stemmed from a May 11, 2015, blog post writ­ten by Rall and pub­lished along­side one of his car­toons on The Times’ Opin­ionLA blog. In the piece, Rall crit­i­cized a Los Angeles Po­lice De­part­ment crackdown on jay­walk­ing and re­counted his experience be­ing tick­eted for the of­fense in 2001.

“This one is per­sonal,” Rall wrote, say­ing a po­lice of­fi­cer had pushed him against a wall and thrown his driver’s li­cense into the sewer dur­ing the en­counter. Rall wrote that “a cou­ple of dozen passersby” gath­ered to shout at the of­fi­cer.

The LAPD dis­puted Rall’s ac­count.

In a July 28, 2015, note to read­ers, Ni­cholas Gold­berg, ed­i­tor of The Times’ edi­to­rial pages, said LAPD records, in­clud­ing Rall’s writ­ten com­plaint from 2001 and the of­fi­cer’s au­dio­tape of the en­counter, “raise se­ri­ous ques­tions about the ac­cu­racy” of Rall’s post.

There was no ev­i­dence of shout­ing on­look­ers, Gold­berg wrote, and the tape de­picted “a po­lite in­ter­ac­tion.”

“Rall’s fu­ture work will not ap­pear in The Times,” Gold­berg wrote.

In his law­suit, Rall chal­lenged The Times’ ac­count and ques­tioned the au­then­tic­ity of the au­dio record­ing.

In court Wed­nes­day, Rall’s at­tor­ney, Nare Avagyan, ar­gued that af­ter The Times pub­lished the ed­i­tor’s note and a more de­tailed ex­pla­na­tion to read­ers a month later, her client was “shunned by his peers.”

Avagyan main­tained that Rall wasn’t a well­known me­dia fig­ure, so it wasn’t nec­es­sary for the news­pa­per to ex­plain its con­cerns about his blog post.

“That is not an is­sue of public in­ter­est,” she said, call­ing Rall a “be­hind-thescenes car­toon­ist.”

Kalin in­ter­jected with a ques­tion: “Were his car­toons signed?”

“Yes,” she re­sponded. The judge nod­ded.

Dur­ing the hear­ing, Kelli Sager, an at­tor­ney for The Times, cited Cal­i­for­nia’s 1992 anti-SLAPP law, de­signed to pro­tect free-speech rights and pre­vent friv­o­lous law­suits. SLAPP stands for “strate­gic law­suit against public par­tic­i­pa­tion.”

Sager said the news­pa­per couldn’t be held li­able for defama­tion for re­port­ing on of­fi­cial records — in this case, the po­lice au­dio­tape and doc­u­ments re­leased by the LAPD. She also ar­gued that Rall had failed to prove The Times pub­lished any­thing false about him.

Rall can appeal Kalin’s rul­ing. The judge has yet to rule on other parts of the law­suit — in­clud­ing al­le­ga­tions of wrong­ful ter­mi­na­tion and defama­tion against The Times’ cur­rent and for­mer cor­po­rate own­ers.

Out­side the court­room, Rall said he hoped his case would catch the at­ten­tion of the state Leg­is­la­ture, con­tend­ing that The Times’ mo­tion was an ex­am­ple of a big com­pany us­ing the SLAPP law against a “$300-a-week car­toon­ist.”

“Ob­vi­ously I’m dis­ap­pointed by the de­ci­sion,” Rall said.

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