San Juan Capistrano

A Win for Free Speech; a “Black Eye” for the City

The Community Common Sense was born out of the frustration of residents over the lack of information coming from City Hall four years ago. The top three topics covered have been the Ground Water Recovery Plant, the RMV Open Space boondoggle and traffic problems. Through it all we have learned that if the council majority, supported by a taxpayer-funded city attorney, are morally bankrupt they can easily control the message which allows them to control tax-payers and especially, their money.
L-R: Rutan & Tucker attorney Phil Kohn
Larry Kramer, Hans Vam Ligten
& Sam Allevato confer about the
newspaper ban at the courthouse -
on your dime.

This became glaringly obvious in the past year when we placed our newsstand next to others in front of City Hall and the Community Center. Within 4 days, Councilmen Sam Allevato, Larry Kramer and John Taylor voted in secret to ban newspapers from city property. They likely never anticipated the firestorm of controversy that would follow their decision. But the First Amendment is a fundamental constitutional right worth fighting for. Thankfully, Laguna Hills attorney Wayne Tate agreed, and offered to defend our right to free speech pro bono while San Juan taxpayers footed the estimated $60,000 bill for Allevato, Kramer & Taylor’s on-going quest to silence us.
In fact, these council members took the additional expensive step of filing an “Anti-SLAPP” motion against our company with other people’s money (yours), essentially claiming that we violated the council members’ First Amendment right to violate our First Amendment right to free speech! In defense of that motion, Tate teamed up with the Oakland-based First Amendment Project (“FAP”), a non-profit legal defense organization. FAP lead counsel James Wheaton, who is also a Professor of Media Law at Stanford University, told us that he had never seen a case so black-and-white as ours. While he and Tate prepared to defend against the “ridiculous” Anti-SLAPP motion, the need to do so went away when the city at last voted to allow us to continue to keep our newspaper on public property - which is all we asked to begin with.

City Attorney Hans Van Ligten, who had sent a letter to us (and to no other newspaper) prohibiting us from placing our newspaper on City property under threat of criminal prosecution, provided an example of the attempt to continue to intimidate and control the message when interviewed by the OC Register following our win in court. Van Ligten told the reporter that the Anti-SLAPP motion filed against us by the City played “a key role in negotiations”. In his opinion, it meant that we would be forced to pay the City’s legal fees if the judge granted the motion. That helped speed negotiations, he claimed. “They were not being reasonable before, and they started being reasonable afterward,” Van Ligten said. That’s simply not true; we were not the ones being unreasonable; we were not the ones who dragged this through the courts for a year. The truth is that in the end, we got exactly what we asked for to begin with, which was simply to restore all newspapers to public property. CCS attorney Tate stated, “If [the city] did nothing wrong, why did the City stipulate to a judgment?” In fact, why did the City agree to pay our court costs if they did nothing wrong?

This time with the help of Wayne Tate, the little guys and freedom won. We may not have any money but we have a recipe that the council majority and their hired guns don’t seem to comprehend; morality, common sense, and the motivation to do the right thing.

Thank you to Wayne Tate, the First Amendment Project and to all the residents who stood with us in the fight for free speech in SJC. This victory is yours.

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