Second District Confirms That Anti-SLAPP Statute Protects Private Support for Major Public Projects And Institutions
The Second District published today its December 22, 2014 decision in Save Westwood Village v. Meyer Luskin, applying the anti-SLAPP statute to protect significant charitable donations to public institutions and projects from baseless claims. The Court of Appeal confirmed that written and financial support from private donors for a new University of California facility is expression protected by the constitutional right of free speech. In addition, the Court rejected arguments that the claim against the private donors was exempt from the anti-SLAPP statute as a public interest lawsuit.
The underlying lawsuit challenges the University of California’s approval of a new $162M academic conference center, currently under construction on the UCLA campus. In addition to the University, project opponents sued two private individuals who donated $100M to UCLA, including a $40M pledge for the construction of the conference center, and the UCLA Foundation, the non-profit entity who received the charitable donation on the University’s behalf. The private donors and the UCLA Foundation filed a special motion to strike pursuant to the anti-SLAPP statute, Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16. The anti-SLAPP statute was enacted to limit the improper use of litigation to attack constitutionally-protected free speech. The project opponents argued that their claims were exempt from the anti-SLAPP statute as a public interest lawsuit.
The Court of Appeal affirmed in full the trial court’s ruling, which granted the anti-SLAPP motion and awarded legal fees to the private donors and the non-profit foundation. The Court first ruled that the public interest exemption did not apply because the claims against the private individuals and non-profit were not brought in the public interest. Further, the donors’ pledges of support were constitutionally-protected written expression as “private conduct that impacts a broad segment of society and/or that affects a community in a manner similar to that of a governmental entity.” The Court of Appeal also held that the opponents were unable to show any possibility of prevailing against the private entities, noting that the opponents dismissed those entities on the eve of the trial court hearing.
Save Westwood Village reiterates the principle that project opponents cannot use claims against public entities as a shield to protect improper lawsuits against private entities and individuals. This ruling should help curtail unnecessary lawsuits filed against public agencies for the sole purpose of circumventing the anti-SLAPP statute. It also provides additional security to those who support public institutions, by confirming that the anti-SLAPP statute is available to protect their constitutional rights.