A judge Wednesday dismissed a defamation claim that was part of a lawsuit filed against Assemblyman Mike Gipson over a campaign mailer he approved for use against the opponent he defeated in November to win the 64th Assembly District seat.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Feffer found that the mailer Gipson authorized, in which Prophet Walker’s image was altered to make it appear he was wielding a handgun, was not libelous because the plaintiff pleaded no contest to robbery as a minor. A man was badly beaten in that crime, and Feffer said a robbery charge includes the elements of force or fear.
“The mailer as a whole contains the alleged libelous photograph of Walker, but also contains undisputedly factual allegations that Walter was incarcerated for armed robbery,” Feffer wrote.
Walker’s attorneys, Bryan Freedman and David Mamorstein, said the ruling is flawed and the mailer is defamatory because Walker’s plea did not include an armed enhancement. Therefore, the mailer was not substantially true in its depiction of the plaintiff, they said.
“They put a gun in his hand for the specific purpose of scaring the living daylights out of the constituency,” Mamorstein said.
Freedman said Walker will appeal.
“The court has stretched the bounds of the anti-SLAAP law beyond to where it has never been before,” Freedman said.
The Legislature enacted the anti-SLAAP law to protect free speech and discourage lawsuits meant to intimidate or censor.
Freedman engaged in a brief, but sharp exchange with Feffer at the end of the hearing, saying he resented the judge using a hypothetical involving Charles Manson and whether he could sue for defamation if someone distributed a photo of him holding a knife even though he was not present during the 1969 Tate-Labianca murders.
Feffer said she was not comparing Walker to Manson.
Gipson’s attorney, Thomas Long, said the mailer did not have to be precisely correct in its depiction of Walker to avoid a defamation claim.
“The rough and tumble of political campaigns doesn’t belong in the courtroom,” Long said.
Long also said Gipson admitted the mailer was a mistake, but has not conceded it falsely portrayed his opponent.
Walker, who was present for today’s hearing, also named political consultant Angel Gonzalez in the suit filed March 25, which sought unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and an injunction preventing “further publication or distribution of false photographs” of Walker
According to the lawsuit, Gipson authorized a campaign mailer in which a photo of the plaintiff was superimposed on the body of someone in a hooded sweatshirt who was pointing a handgun. Walker says he became aware of the mailer about a week before the election.
Gipson hired Gonzalez, described in the lawsuit as “a consultant known to have a criminal record of producing false and illegal mailers,” to create the mailer and influence voters, the complaint alleges.
The mailer was malicious and libelous on its face, according to the suit, which further alleges the state Elections Code was violated because no disclaimer was placed in the mailer stating that the photo “was not an accurate representation of fact.”
Feffer’s ruling did not affect the status of the Elections Code allegation and Walker can move forward against the assemblyman on that claim. The decision also does not impact the allegations against Gonzalez.
The 64th Assembly District includes Carson, Compton, Watts, Willowbrook, parts of South Los Angeles and sections of Wilmington and Long Beach.
Gipson replaced Isadore Hall, who was elected in November to represent the state Senate’s 35th District.
—City News Service