A San Diego judge heard arguments Friday on a motion filed by inewsource seeking to dismiss a local nonprofit’s lawsuit contesting the legality of the news organization’s lease agreement with San Diego State University and its media partner, KPBS.
After an hour of arguments, Superior Court Judge Eddie Sturgeon said he would issue an opinion on the motion by 3 p.m. Wednesday. inewsource is asking the court to throw out the lawsuit filed against it by San Diegans for Open Government, arguing that the lawsuit is nothing more than a “frivolous” attack on press freedom.
“This is a very serious issue in front of the court,” Sturgeon said at the end of the hearing.
The motion at issue specifically charges that the lawsuit is intended “to silence unpopular press about” Cory Briggs, the high-profile local attorney whose legal work on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government has been the subject of a months-long investigation by inewsource.
With this lawsuit, “You have an attack on journalists,” inewsource attorney Guylyn Cummins told the judge. “This is clear retaliation” for the news organization’s reporting.
In April, San Diegans for Open Government sued inewsource, its executive editor Lorie Hearn and San Diego State University, among other entities, claiming that conflicts of interest tainted the lease agreement between the investigative news organization, the university and KPBS. Under the agreement, inewsource shares office space and resources and news content with KPBS on the university’s campus.
In the lawsuit, San Diegans for Open Government also alleges, among other claims, that inewsource has unlawfully used the trademarks of San Diego State University and KPBS.
inewsource, Hearn and the university dispute all of the lawsuit’s claims. They contend that none of the people involved in negotiating the lease agreements were conflicted. Additionally, they argue that inewsource’s use of the logos of KPBS and San Diego State University are allowed under an agreement that permits co-attribution for news content.
The news organization and university also contend that San Diegans for Open Government has no legal standing to sue over these issues.
The lawsuit followed months of reporting by inewsource investigating the business practices of Briggs, who frequently uses the nonprofit group to file lawsuits against government agencies and developers. inewsource has published stories detailing questionable real estate deals and conflicts of interest involving Briggs and his law firm.
“The evidence shows that this lawsuit is nothing but an attempt by SDOG (San Diegans for Open Government) to retaliate against inewsource, its editor, Loretta Hearn, and KPBS for their reporting about the questionable business practices of SDOG’s alter ego, Briggs Law Corporation, and its principal Cory Briggs,” inewsource argued in its motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
The motion filed by inewsource invokes a California law that seeks to protect free speech rights. It allows complaints to be stricken that infringe upon First Amendment-protected activities, including freedom of the press.
Attorney John McClendon, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government, sought to separate the issues of news reporting and the lease agreements between inewsource, San Diego State University and KPBS.
In his oral arguments, he said the lawsuit against inewsource “has nothing to do whatsoever” with the news organization’s reporting.
“They can report all they want,” said McClendon, who has joined Briggs in litigation in the past. “We have no problem with that.”
On Sept. 2, the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists condemned the lawsuit filed against inewsource.
“There is a right way and a wrong way to raise complaints about news coverage, and this is the wrong way,” the journalism organization said in a statement.
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