The Los Angeles County Superior Court recently granted an anti-SLAPP motion brought by the defendant, MBC Broadcasting, Inc. (MBC), in a defamation suit based on news broadcasts by MBC. MBC broadcast four news stories regarding allegations of improper corporal punishment and child abuse at Young Youth Core Academia (YYCA), an after-school academic program for children owned and operated by Helen Byon in the Koreatown area of Los Angeles. Following the broadcasts, Ms. Byon and her son (Plaintiffs) sued MBC for alleged defamatory statements. MBC subsequently filed a special motion to strike Plaintiffs’ claims pursuant to California Civil Procedure Code section 425.16, California’s anti-SLAPP statute.
Courts engage in a two-step process when considering an anti-SLAPP motion. On prong one, the defendant is required to make a “prima facie showing” that the plaintiff’s causes of action arise from a protected activity, which includes the defendant’s right of petition or free speech in connection with a public issue. Once the defendant makes a prima facie showing, the court proceeds to prong two. There, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate a reasonable probability of prevailing on the merits of the complaint.
The Court first held that MBC satisfied prong one because “news reporting on the serious topic of child abuse is an exercise of speech concerning an issue of public interest.” Therefore, MBC’s broadcasts constituted protected activity under section 425.16.
Turning to prong two, the court analyzed whether Plaintiffs demonstrated a probability of prevailing on the merits of their defamation claims. To prevail on a defamation claim, Plaintiffs must establish “the intentional publication of a false statement of fact that has a natural tendency to injure [P]laintiff’s reputation or that causes special damage.” J-M Mfg. Co., Inc. v. Phillips & Cohen LLP, 247 Cal. App. 4th 87, 97 (2016). If Plaintiffs are public figures, Plaintiffs must also establish that MBC acted with actual malice.
The Court held that Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate a reasonable probability of prevailing on the merits of their defamation claims because: (1) Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate a reasonable probability that MBC’s broadcasts were false; (2) Plaintiffs failed to establish that MBC acted with actual malice; and (3) California Civil Code section 47(e)(2)’s fair and true reporting privilege barred Plaintiffs’ claims.
Falsity. Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate a reasonable probability that MBC’s broadcasts were false. The four broadcasts reported that there had been investigations into child abuse by Ms. Byon at the YYCA and contained numerous interviews with former YYCA students describing their abuse. MBC also reported that Ms. Byon completely denied the charges but more allegations had been revealed. The last broadcast covered Ms. Byon’s decision to run for Koreatown community representative despite the allegations.
In support of its anti-SLAPP motion, MBC provided numerous declarations regarding the alleged abuse, including declarations by four parents of YYCA students regarding reports by their children of abuse by Ms. Byon. Meanwhile, in support of their opposition to the anti-SLAPP motion, Plaintiffs largely relied on Ms. Byon’s declaration in which she denied the allegations. The Court held that “mere assertions that a statement is ‘false,’ even in sworn declarations, do not satisfy a plaintiff’s burden to demonstrate falsity.”
Malice. The Court stated that Plaintiff was required to establish that MBC acted with actual malice because Plaintiff was at least a limited purpose public figure in the Korean-American community. Specifically, the Court found that Plaintiff was a limited purpose public figure because the evidence “establishe[d] that Plaintiff was actively involved in the Korean-American community in Koreatown and purposefully interjected herself into issues that involved the Korean-American community and residents.”
The Court held that Plaintiff failed to establish that MBC acted with actual malice because Plaintiffs presented no evidence that MBC acted with knowledge or with reckless disregard as to whether the broadcasts were false. Instead, the evidence showed that MBC attempted to interview Ms. Byon as part of its investigation and conducted multiple interviews with parents and students.
Privilege. Finally, the Court held that California Civil Code section 47(e)(2)’s fair and true reporting privilege, which protects any publication or broadcast that is a “fair and true report” for “the public benefit,” barred Plaintiffs’ claims. The Court emphasized that California “has a strong public policy of protecting children from abuse.” Consequently, because MBC’s broadcasts reported on child abuse allegations at YYCA, the fair and true reporting privilege applied to the broadcasts and barred Plaintiffs’ claims.
The First Amendment provides important protections to the press so that it may inform and protect the public. The anti-SLAPP statute provides another layer of protection to ensure that the press may exercise its First Amendment rights.