Over the last few weeks Mayor Owings and his supporters have started a major disinformation campaign against the proponents of his and the other Moreno Valley council members recall efforts, most of which if not all is filled with defamatory statements and outright lies, aimed at confusing and turning away voters from making a well informed decision as to whether they should or shouldn’t sign any recall petition of their respective council representatives, however such actions are not protected under the law, and can be actionable by those with whom he and his supporters have chosen to attack.
Normally an action for defamation involves as single individual, whom has been defamed, and groups have no real legal standing in the area of tort cases for the bringing of actions based on defamation of the group or a class of people, however there are exemptions to this general rule.
The first is that the group is so small that the statements made are reasonably understood to refer to the individual in question, or that circumstances are such that it is reasonable to conclude that the statement refers to a particularly to the individual in question.
As to the first exception statements about a small group courts have often held that an individual group member can bring a claim for defamation for statements directed at a group of 25 or fewer people. The 25 person line is not a hard and fast rule, but rather the way courts commonly distinguish between a group small enough for statements about the whole group to be imputed to individual members and one that is too large to support such an imputation.
The case of Neiman-Marcus v. Lait, 13 F.R.D. 311 (S.D.N.Y. 1952), provides a good illustration of this general rule. In that case, the defendants wrote that “most of the [Neiman-Marcus] sales staff are fairies” and that some of the company’s saleswomen were “call girls.” Fifteen of the 25 salesmen and 30 of the 382 saleswomen at the store brought suit for defamation. Applying New York and Texas law, the court held that the salesmen had a valid cause of action, but the saleswomen did not. Even though the statement referred to “most of” the salesmen, without naming names or specifying further, the statement could be understood to refer to any individual member of this small group. The group of saleswomen, however, was so large that a statement that some of them were “call girls” would not be understood as referring to any individual member of the group.
As to the second exception to the rule against group libel — when circumstances point to a particular individual — courts have allowed defamation claims where the statement is facially broad, but the context makes it clear that it referred to the plaintiff. For example, Bill Blogger may be able to claim defamation based on the statement “all bloggers who attended the most recent city council meeting paid bribes to the mayor,” where Bill is the only blogger who attended the meeting and readers will therefore understand the statement as being a thinly veiled indictment of him.
A person may claim defamation by a literary or dramatic work intended as fictional if the characters in the work resemble actual persons so closely that it is reasonable for readers or viewers to believe that the character is intended to portray the person in question. A disclaimer that the work is fiction and does not depict any persons living or dead will not automatically foreclose a defamation claim, but it is still a good idea and may be used as evidence as to whether readers or viewers would be reasonable in concluding that it is a depiction of the plaintiff.
California Election Code:
Sections 20500 – 20502:
20500. The provisions of Part 2 (commencing with Section 43) of Division 1 of the Civil Code, relating to libel and slander, are fully applicable to any campaign advertising or communication.
20501. (a) A candidate or state measure proponent is liable for any slander or libel committed by a committee that is controlled by that candidate or state measure proponent as defined by Section 82016 of the Government Code if the candidate or state measure proponent willfully and knowingly directs or permits the libel or slander.
(b) A person who is a sponsor of a sponsored committee, as defined by Section 82048.7 of the Government Code, is liable for any slander or libel committed by the sponsored committee if the sponsor willfully and knowingly directs or permits the libel or slander.
20502. (a) In any action for libel or slander brought by a candidate, the willingness or unwillingness of the defendant to retract or correct a communication made in the course of a campaign, and his or her action in doing so, shall be admissible in evidence in the exemplary damages phase of a bifurcated trial.
(b) The remedy provided by this section is in addition to any other remedy provided by law.
California Elections Code 20400:
20400. The Legislature declares that the purpose of this chapter is to encourage every candidate for public office in this state to subscribe to the Code of Fair Campaign Practices.
It is the ultimate intent of the Legislature that every candidate for public office in this state who subscribes to the Code of Fair Campaign Practices will follow the basic principles of decency, honesty, and fair play in order that, after vigorously contested, but fairly conducted campaigns, the citizens of this state may exercise their constitutional right to vote, free from dishonest and unethical practices which tend to prevent the full and free expression of the will of the voters.
The purpose in creating the Code of Fair Campaign Practices is to give voters guidelines in determining fair play and to encourage candidates to discuss issues instead of untruths or distortions.