SPJ/LA Joins Amicus Brief in Support of Palisades News in Defamation Lawsuit

The Greater Los Angeles Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has joined an amicus brief, along with a motion for judicial notice and exhibits, filed by the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press on behalf of the Palisades News and two of its editors, who have been sued by cannabis entrepreneur Stephanie Smith for alleged defamation.

In December 2017, San Bernardino police raided three Smith-owned facilities suspected of operating illegal marijuana-growing operations. They also served a search warrant on Smith’s oceanfront home in Pacific Palisades, where they recovered hundreds of oxycodone and Norco pills hidden in the garage, along with a reported $200,000 in cash.

While the initial raids received massive national and international news coverage, Smith took issue with a subsequent January 2018 Palisades News article that cited earlier news reports about the raid and the search from TV outlets KCBS, KTLA, and DailyMailTV, along with interviews with police officials, about Smith’s allegedly illegal activities in connection with large-scale cannabis production.

Smith disclaimed any involvement in the grow operations and insisted she was only a landlord renting to others. A statement from her attorney quoted her as saying, “I am a well-known and recognized leader in large-scale cannabis real estate development and I am proud of the State of California’s position on cannabis.”

In March 2018, Smith sued the Palisades News in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging defamation, false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). In response, the News filed a motion to quash the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, which bars litigation intended to stifle public discussion of issues and policy. The judge largely agreed with the News, striking the false light and IIED claims but allowing the defamation claim to proceed.

After filing a notice of appeal in August 2018, the News filed its opening brief before California’s Second Appellate District in February 2019; Smith filed her brief in March 2019, and the News filed its response in April 2019. It is in support of the Palisades News’ appeal that this amicus brief has been filed, arguing that Smith is a public figure and that the First Amendment protects the News under the neutral reportage and wire-service doctrines, which shields news organizations who accurately report in good faith what other reputable news organizations have previously reported.

Meanwhile, the San Bernardino Sun reported on February 25, 2019 that Smith had sued the City of San Bernardino after the City Council denied Smith’s application for cannabis production. The Sun also reported that earlier in the month, after a 14-month investigation, San Bernardino police raided one of Smith’s properties and seized 2,600 lbs. of marijuana from an allegedly illegal growing operation, and subsequently arrested Smith at her Palisades home in connection with the drugs and cash that had been seized in 2017. On March 7, 2019, the Sun reported that Los Angeles County prosecutors have charged her with one felony count of possession for sale of a controlled substance; she is due in court on April 25 for a pretrial hearing.

In addition to SPJ/LA, other news organizations who have signed on to the amicus brief include the American Society of News Editors, California News Publishers Association, Californians Aware, First Amendment Coalition, SPJ/NorCal and SPJ national, the News Media Alliance, and media companies including the Los Angeles Times, Digital First Media, E.W. Scripps Company, Gannett Co. Inc., McClatchy Company, and Fox Television Stations, LLC, among others.

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