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A California judge has rejected CNN’s attempt to dismiss a lawsuit brought by The Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness (GLAD) over the news organization’s refusal to caption videos uploaded to its website.
CNN raised a First Amendment objection to the suit, opening up an intriguing battle. On one side, a media organization’s unequivocal right to free speech. On the other, the plaintiffs’ incontrovertible right to have equal access to the product of free speech.
GLAD sued in June, prompting CNN to file an anti-SLAPP motion. Under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, defendants are allowed to strike a complaint if the lawsuit is an attempt to interfere with the furtherance of free speech on a matter of public interest.
CNN argued that all of its activities as a news agency are in furtherance of its free speech rights.
GLAD objected. The group said it would be one thing if this was a libel or privacy case. But to interpret the anti-SLAPP statute this broadly, the group argued, would mean a pass from legal obligations “whenever the defendant is a news corporation or when defendant’s acts are in any way connected to speech.”
As one hypothetical, GLAD wondered whether African Americans would ever be allowed to object in court if a newspaper refused to deliver newspapers on the basis of race.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler agrees that legislators didn’t intend such broad exemption from legal claims for media companies. The judge also notes the plaintiffs “do not assert a right to change CNN’s broadcast or expressive content or otherwise interfere with CNN’s editorial discretion. They ask only for access to the video content.”
CNN also made the argument that not providing closed-captioning was an issue of editorial control because the news organization should have the right to reject something that didn’t satisfy its editorial standards, including technology that could result in inaccuracies.
And the company worried about the expense. If CNN is forced to place its money in one area, it could mean that it has less money to place in the other. Increased costs for closed-captioning might mean fewer videos being posted, so the defendant wondered how its choice was not in the furtherance of its free speech rights.
Judge Beeler rejects this line of thinking.
“CNN proposes an application of the anti-SLAPP statute that extends beyond conduct in furtherance of creating speech to cover virtually any conduct of a news media organization,” writes the judge, pointing to various other cases (such as the Dr. Phil-held-me-captive lawsuit) where media defendants attempted to shield themselves from all sorts of offending conduct.
The judge says that just because an activity is related to free speech doesn’t foreclose “the critical inquiry [of] whether the cause of action is ‘based on the defendant’s free speech or petitioning activity.’”
The judge’s decision doesn’t pertain to GLAD’s likelihood of succeeding on its main arguments in this lawsuit, but she won’t hear CNN’s First Amendment excuse to ignoring the deaf.
The full decision is on the next page.
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