ACLU Stepping in on ‘McCaw Obey the Law’ Dispute

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By: E&P Staff

The ACLU Thursday answered the “cease and desist” letter sent to a local businessman by lawyers for Santa Barbara (Calif.) News-Press owner and Publisher Wendy McCaw with a letter of its own — demanding the billionaire stop threatening him.

On Dec. 13, an attorney for McCaw sent a “cease and desist” letter to Eric Zahm, who displayed a sign in his Santa Barbara hair salon reading “McCaw Obey The Law.” The sign had been posted in support News-Press employees who have voted to be represented by the Teamsters union, which has filed several unfair labor charges against the publisher.

The letter claims the sign is defamatory and subjects McCaw to “hatred, contempt and ridicule.” The letter also threatens to take “appropriate action” if the sign is not taken down.

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California says it is McCaw’s lawyer who is acting improperly.

“It is outrageous that a lawyer would send out a threatening letter that shows such a misunderstanding of the law and it is even more outrageous that the owner of a newspaper who should be a champion of free speech is instead trying to silence the voices of members of the community,” said Peter Eliasberg, a lawyer specializing in First Amendment issues at the ACLU of Southern California.

In a letter to McCaw lawyer A. Barry Cappello, Eliasberg said the cease and desist letter is wrong on the law.

The sign cannot be read as defamatory, Eliasberg said, because it was posted in a labor dispute, which the California Supreme Court has ruled provides a context in which potentially defamatory statements are treated as opinion. The sign’s message, too, is obviously the statement of a laymen, Eliasberg wrote, giving his opinion on the unfair labor charges. Finally, the letter said, any lawsuit would fail because McCaw is indisputably a public figure who would have to prove actual malice.

“In light of the well-established law, I trust neither you or any other lawyer for Ms. McCaw or the News-Press will be sending threatening letters to Santa Barbara residents who choose to weigh in with opinions on the News-Press’s labor dispute with its employees,” the ACLU letter concluded.

McCaw’s lawyers have been busy on the defamation and labor fronts. Earlier this month, she sued Susan Paterno, claiming she and paper had been defamed by an article in the December/January issue of American Journalism Review.


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