Judge Rules in Favor of Daily Californian Editor in Lawsuit

The student press has earned a big victory in California’s small claims court.  Earlier this week, a judge ruled in favor of Daily Californian editor in chief Rajesh Srinivasan in the lawsuit brought against him by the father of former UC Berkeley football player Chris Purtz.

As I previously wrote, Fresno podiatrist Harvey Purtz recently filed a $7,500 lawsuit against Srinivasan for “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”  The suit focused on Srinivasan’s refusal to erase or alter stories on the Daily Cal or Daily Clog websites that reported upon the unruly behavior of Chris at an adult club and his subsequent dismissal from the university football team roughly four years ago.

After Chris died last June, Harvey Purtz requested, demanded, and eventually sued to attempt to get the newspaper to delete the online articles.  Srinivasan, on behalf of the newspaper, declined to change a single word or link.  The battle moved to court last week.  And on Wednesday, the judge issued his ruling, siding completely with Srinivasan.  The Daily Cal EIC is not liable to pay Purtz a cent.  And the articles will remain online, untouched.

Rajesh Srinivasan, editor in chief and president of The Daily Californian. (Photo on Daily Californian site.)

As Daily Californian staff writer True Shields reports, “[T]he court ruled that libel on the memory of a deceased person is not deemed to inflict legal action constituting defamation on surviving relatives.  The court also noted that the Uniform Single Publication Act– which states that the statute of limitations on a publication is determined upon its first distribution to the public– and the maximum two-year statute of limitations for emotional distress claims worked against Purtz’s claim.”

Basically… 1) The parents cannot claim Chris was libeled by the newspaper.  Chris would have had to file that claim himself (something he did not do in the years after the stories were published).  And 2) Time’s up.  The stories at the center of this fight first appeared online in late 2006 and early 2007.  This type of claim had to be filed awhile ago.

As the judge noted near the close of his statement on the decision (click here or below to review the full statement in the docket report), “The court is sympathetic to the pain and suffering endured by the parents of Chris Purtz.  The court is mindful that today’s technology allows stories of loved ones to circulate on the Internet in perpetuity.  However, the court is also mindful of the applicable policies, statutes and case law.”

In a brief Q&A with CMM, Srinivasan outlined his day in court and his final thoughts on how things turned out.

Can you describe this type of case in a basic sense for those unfamiliar with how small claims courts work?

Small claims court is fairly informal in Fresno.  A number of cases are heard on the same day.  Essentially, the plaintiff presents what he is alleging and provides evidence and testimony for his side of the case.  The judge will occasionally ask the plaintiff questions or ask him to clarify something.  Then the same happens for the defendant.  It is a fairly quick process.  [Ed. note: This Fresno Bee article goes into a bit of detail about the hearing, although it clearly takes the side of the Purtz family.]

You mentioned in our previous Q&A that at least one positive of this situation was the amount you were learning about the law.  What did you learn from the hearing part of the process?

For me, it was a good exercise in arguing a case in front of a judge.  Luckily for me, Daniel Zaheer from Kerr & Wagstaffe LLP researched a number of cases and crafted several arguments for our court brief.  He and James Wagstaffe, the two attorneys who guided me through this process, helped me prepare thoroughly for this case and gather a good amount of evidence.  The hearing reinforced the obvious fact that solid preparation is essential for giving you confidence in the courtroom.

Any last thoughts about how everything ended up?

One of the issues that was brought up in the hearing was whether the Daily Californian needed to keep the article on its website years after the incident and whether the article was still relevant– legal arguments aside.  That is something I have thought about since the trial, and my answer is still that it is important for us to have that article on our site.  It is a slice of UC Berkeley history, and though it may be a small episode in it, it is nonetheless part of the historical record that we maintain as the campus newspaper.  I think it would have been dishonest to this record for us to remove the article from our site.

2 Responses to “Judge Rules in Favor of Daily Californian Editor in Lawsuit”
  1. Raj handled the whole thing extraordinarily well. One wrinkle to the case that created something of a catch-22 in the early going is that California has a wonderfully protective anti-SLAPP statute that permits you to bring an anti-SLAPP motion to stop any proceeding–in theory, any court case, hearing, ADR, etc. The problem was that small claims court doesn’t permit motions to be made before the court appearance, except for jurisdictional ones (the jurisdictional limit being the $7500 cap).

    So a claim of a publication tort actually ends up doing more to hamper public participation in small claims court than it does in state trial court, because the claim dies faster in state court because you can file the anti-SLAPP motion on day one from your desk, rather than having to basically argue an anti-SLAPP argument without being able to make an anti-SLAPP motion.

    That’s something California may want to address, and there are two equally good ways to do it. One, impose a jurisdictional limitation on small claims court that it can’t consider publication torts, which it honestly shouldn’t be doing anyway; or two, say that small claims court can consider jurisdictional OR anti-SLAPP motions.

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