From left, Justices Gilbert Nares, Richard D. Huffman and William Dato of the California 4th District Court of Appeal listen to oral arguments by John McClendon, who represents San Diegans for Open Government. April 14, 2017. Brandon Quester, inewsource.
California 4th District Court of Appeal justices listen to oral arguments by John McClendon, who represented San Diegans for Open Government in its lawsuit against inewsource. (Brandon Quester/inewsource)

Appellate court justices ruled in favor of inewsource Wednesday, rejecting a lawsuit that claimed the nonprofit news organization has conflicts of interest that taint its lease agreement with San Diego State University and KPBS.

The three justices unanimously ruled that the lawsuit had no merit because it was not supported by “competent and admissible evidence.” They agreed with inewsource that the lawsuit was an attempt to curtail free speech rights.

The lawsuit was filed by San Diegans for Open Government, or SDOG, two years ago, after inewsource published a series of investigations about Cory Briggs, a high profile local attorney.

On its face, the lawsuit challenged the lease agreement between inewsource and KPBS, whose broadcast licenses are held by SDSU. Under the agreement, KPBS shares office space and resources with inewsource on the university’s campus in exchange for news stories.

inewsource and SDSU won the case in the lower court, arguing that the lawsuit was intended “to silence unpopular press about” Briggs. inewsource and SDSU invoked a law known at the anti-SLAPP statute (strategic lawsuit against public participation.)

The appeals court agreed in a 40-page published opinion Wednesday, which can be cited as precedent. Writing for the three-judge panel,  Justice Gilbert Nares said, “We reject SDOG’s assertion that the anti-SLAPP statute does not apply ….”

The court essentially found that the contract between inewsource and SDSU and newsgathering were tied.

Nares said, “There is a protected free speech right to report the news …  Reporting the news requires the assistance of newsgathering and other related conduct and activity, which are acts undertaken in furtherance of the news media’s right to free speech.  Such conduct is therefore protected conduct under the anti-SLAPP statute.”

Finally, the court said SDOG’s claims against inewsource and SDSU “fail on the merits because SDOG offered no admissible evidence to support its claims. SDOG’s attempt to fill the evidentiary void by relying on allegations in its verified complaint is insufficient as a matter of law.”

The ruling said inewsource and SDSU are entitled to costs incurred.

Lorie Hearn, founder and executive director of inewsource, said she was gratified. She said the appeals court saw the allegations in the lawsuit as groundless and recognized that the lawsuit was an attempt to punish the nonprofit news organization for its work.

John McClendon, attorney for SDOG, did not return a call for comment.

This story was updated with additional information.

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