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This story was updated at 12:11 p.m.
A San Diego judge threw out a lawsuit yesterday challenging the legality of lease agreements between inewsource, KPBS and San Diego State University, concluding that it was prompted by inewsource’s investigative journalism.
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Superior Court Judge Eddie Sturgeon issued his two-page decision in response to a motion filed by inewsource that asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit brought by San Diegans for Open Government because it was meant to silence reporting critical of a prominent attorney who frequently represents the nonprofit group.
“We are gratified Judge Sturgeon agreed that this lawsuit challenged the very mission of inewsource, that is, to do investigative journalism,” inewsource executive editor Lorie Hearn said. “His decision underscores the importance of our work and of our partnership with KPBS.”
“We did really feel like this [lawsuit] was retaliation for our hard-hitting news stories,” added inewsource attorney Guylyn Cummins.
In April, San Diegans for Open Government sued inewsource, Hearn, San Diego State University and the SDSU Research Foundation, the fiscal agent for KPBS, claiming that conflicts of interest tainted the lease agreement between the investigative news organization, the university and KPBS. Under the agreement, the nonprofit inewsource shares office space and resources with public media outlet KPBS on the university’s campus in exchange for investigative news stories.
inewsource and San Diego State University filed a motion last month disputing each of the lawsuit’s claims and asking the court to throw out the lawsuit. The motion argued that the lawsuit was intended “to silence unpopular press about” Cory Briggs, the high-profile attorney whose legal work on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government has been the subject of a months-long investigation by inewsource.
The news organization’s motion invoked a California law that allows meritless complaints to be tossed if they infringe upon free speech rights, including freedom of the press.
San Diegans for Open Government argued in court last week that its lawsuit had nothing to do with inewsource’s journalism. Attorney John McClendon told the judge that the lawsuit was strictly about an unlawful lease agreement.
“They can report all they want,” said McClendon, who has joined Briggs in litigation in the past. “We have no problem with that.”
Sturgeon, however, ruled that the lease agreements in dispute were “inextricably related to news gathering and dissemination, which is clearly protected activity” under the law. The judge also concluded that San Diegans for Open Government did not establish that it would prevail if the lawsuit continued.
Neither McClendon nor Briggs immediately responded to requests for comment. But San Diegans for Open Government, or SDOG, expressed its frustration with the judge’s ruling in a blog post on its website this morning.
“SDOG is disappointed by yesterday’s ruling on the motions filed against it in its lawsuit to protect taxpayers from subsidizing a San Diego State University instructor’s private business,” the nonprofit group wrote. “The ruling essentially prohibits watchdog organizations like SDOG from suing to invalidate a subsidy illegally given to a public employee just because the subsidy is used to support a private news business.”
In the blog post, San Diegans for Open Government wrote that it plans to appeal the ruling.
Hearn issued the following statement in response to San Diegans for Open Government’s blog post:
“inewsource has had a lease with San Diego State University for years. I was paid to teach one class during one semester, in the spring of 2015. Anyone who is familiar with bureaucracies, like universities, knows that a part-time professor has absolutely no power to influence anything, let alone a contract for work space that overwhelmingly benefits not only the KPBS audience.
“Our contract is a matter of public record. There is nothing secret about it, as SDOG claims. During the term of inewsource‘s agreement with KPBS — from October 2011 forward — inewsource has contributed and collaborated on 285 stories for the KPBS audience. I hope the public appreciates the value of that journalism.
“To attack our partnership is to attack our journalism. The two are inextricably linked. The lawsuit filed by SDOG was clearly harassment and retaliation for our work. We are grateful Judge Sturgeon saw through the smoke.”