Thursday, September 08, 2005

Terry v. Davis Community Church (Cal. Ct. App. - Aug. 18, 2005)

Ewwww! For a creepy, skin-crawling feeling, take a gander at the e-mails and IMs that George Terry -- a married man in his 30s -- sent to a 16-year old girl. They're on pages five, six and seven of this opinion. Ironically, the fact that George Terry doesn't seem a classic predator -- and instead appears to be a kind of particularly pathetic, love-stuck loser -- only makes the whole thing even creepier to me. Reading that stuff just made me cringe. Eeee.

Anyway, in this 44-page opinion, Justice Sims affirms the granting of an anti-SLAPP motion against Terry's defamation lawsuit against the church and various individuals who allegedly libeled him. Not too shocking. For reasons you might well imagine, Terry doesn't exactly come across as a person you really want to favor with a judgment. (Even though, quite frankly, there are apparently some qualities about him that I somewhat appreciated; in particular, the fact that he did seem to have some real sense -- at least eventually -- that what he did was totally wrong and inappropriate). So it's not too surprising that Justice Sims (and the trial court) dismiss his lawsuit. And award attorney's fees to the other side.

That said, my firm sense is that, at least in places, Justice Sims is simply trying to hard to achieve this result. Let me give just one example. Terry has sued for a ton of different allegedly defamatory statements, and on page 31, Justice Sims discusses one of them: Terry's allegation that defendant Tobin called him a "liar"; in particular, that Tobin told at least person that Terry had lied to her about the relationship that he had with the young girl. Well, if true, that seems pretty defamatory to me. And isn't a protected statement of opinion. So it seems like that's a potentially cognizable claim.

But Justice Sims nonetheless dismisses this claim on the grounds that "Terry admitted lying," and hence that defendant's statement is indisputably true. How so, you ask? Because, Justice Sims says, it is undisputed (as indeed it is) that Terry wrote an e-mail to the girl in which he said "I feel dishonest . . . like I'm hiding something (which I know I am)" and asked her to help him act "normal" around him.

Uh, dude. These are two different things. Sure, Terry's saying that -- as in may secret relationships -- he's being emotionally "dishonest" by not revealing his feelings to the world; e.g., by (not surprisingly) refraining from kissing his 16-year old love interest in public like he might want to. But that's hardly an admission that he lied to Tobin about his relationship with the girl. Terry says he never lied to Tobin, but that Tobin accused him of doing so. If so, that's defamation. The fact that you're -- as we sometimes put it colloquially -- "living a lie" hardly means (even if it's true) that everyone's privileged to call you a big fat liar. You're only a liar if you lie. Not revealing your feeling (or sexuality, or political beliefs, or whatever) doesn't count, nor does it give carte blanche to people to call you a liar.

Not, mind you, that stuff like this actually matters to the result, because I think that Justice Sims may well be right when he holds -- later on -- that, even if actionably defamatory, these allegations are privileged under Civil Code 47 by the common interest privilege. The point is nonetheless that judges shouldn't stretch just to achieve a particular result. Because it weakens the opinion. And also isn't what judges are supposed to do. Just tell it like it is and let the chips fall where they may. Let's not stretch the law (or facts), like I think Judge Sims does on occasion here, to reach a particular result. Either consciously or -- as may well be the case here -- subconsciously. Just play it straight up. And try hard to put your prejudices aside. That'll make everyone better off.