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Court Revives CNN Discrimination Suit

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By William Vogeler, Esq. on December 20, 2016 11:57 AM

Slapping back an employer's free speech defense, a state appeals court said a fired producer may proceed in his discrimination case against CNN.

The Second District Court of Appeal reversed a decision on the network's motion under California's law limiting strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPP). An appellate panel rejected the company's claim, saying the law did not apply to an employer's allegedly discriminatory actions.

In a split decision, the Second District said CNN failed to show the plaintiff's claim "arises from an act in furtherance" of the employer's right of free speech in connection with a public issue. The alleged acts of discrimination and retaliation against Wilson "are not acts in furtherance" of CNN's free speech rights, Justice Elwood Lui wrote for the majority.

Significant Decision in Discrimination Suits

The decision is "very significant" because California employers have used anti-SLAPP motions to fight discrimination suits, Lisa L. Maki, who represented Wilson, told Bloomberg BNA. An employer's "discriminatory conduct is not free speech."

Stanley Wilson, a longtime CNN writer and producer, sued for racial discrimination and other claims after he was fired in January 2014. CNN responded with an anti-SLAPP motion and produced evidence that Wilson had copied articles from the Los Angeles Times for CNN reports. In other words, CNN claimed to have fired Wilson for plagiarism, and not for any race-related reasons.

The judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying the company was exercising its First Amendment rights to defend itself under anti-SLAPP law.

Justice Rothschild Dissents

On appeal, Presiding Justice Frances Rothschild dissented from the majority and said CNN is exercising its right of free speech under the First Amendment when it reports the news. Therefore, she concluded, the anti-SLAPP law applies.

"Acts that help advance or assist CNN in the exercise of that right are 'acts in furtherance of the right of free speech' for purposes of the anti-SLAPP statute," she said.

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