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SPJ joins amicus brief in case involving ‘actual malice’ standard



Paul Fletcher, SPJ National President, 804-873-1893,
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134,

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists has joined an amicus brief with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in a case involving a defamation lawsuit in California that concerns the “actual malice” standard. The court’s ruling, according to the brief, would severely constrain the ability of the press to “effectively expose deception in the government” and “preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.”

The lawsuit, Angel v. Winograd, was brought by Tawni Angel, the owner of a business that used to operate a petting zoo and pony rides in Santa Monica, Calif. She sued Marcy Winograd, a local animal-rights activist, who led protests against Angel’s business. Winograd filed an “anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation)” motion, asking the trial court to dismiss the case, but the court allowed it to proceed, ruling that there was “sufficient evidence” that Winograd spoke with “actual malice” when she criticized Angel’s business.

In its ruling, the trial court misapplied the actual malice standard, which requires a public-figure plaintiff suing for defamation to show that the defendant knowingly made false statements or recklessly disregarded the truth.

The trial court concluded that Winograd spoke with actual malice merely because her statements were inconsistent with the findings of local animal-control officers. That ruling failed to take into account Winograd’s good-faith, subjective belief -- based on her own personal observations -- that the animal-control officers were wrong.

The ruling is currently on appeal to the California Court of Appeal, and the amicus brief reiterates the proper actual malice test.

“The interpretation of actual malice adopted by the trial court would hamper the practice of journalism, because under the trial court’s reasoning, anyone who expresses disagreement with a government official’s findings could be subject to a defamation lawsuit,” said SPJ President Paul Fletcher. “We hope the appeals court recognizes this and rules consistent with the law.”

SPJ and other signatories of the amicus brief say the trial court’s interpretation of the actual malice standard is inconsistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s pronouncement in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 273–274 (1964) that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”

“Actual malice requires knowledge of spreading false information or reckless disregard for the truth and cannot be proven simply because it is inconsistent with a known government finding,” Fletcher added. “The interpretations applied by the court conflicts with the purpose of the First Amendment and would greatly hamper the practice of journalism.”

The First Amendment guarantees the press and the public a right of access to criminal trials, including pretrial proceedings, and documents submitted in connection with them. In its role as a free press and free speech advocate, SPJ initiates and joins amicus briefs to support First Amendment and open records cases.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit The


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