Fullerton, CA - On March 12, 2020, Orange County Superior Court Judge James Crandall approved a Final Ruling which denies an anti-Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) motion and affirms and re-institutes an injunction against a local Fullerton blog, Friends for Fullerton’s Future (FFF), from publishing files which they gained through unauthorized and allegedly illegal means. The files in questions are not public files but are exempt per State law and attorney-client privilege since they deal with police personnel matters and other lawful exemptions under State law.
The City has maintained that the defendants obtained the documents through unauthorized, or actually illegal, means. To that point, the Judge ruled: “The next question is whether the City has evidence that FFF, or its representatives Ferguson or Curlee, obtained these documents through an illegal act – accessing the City’s Dropbox account and taking them without permission. The court concludes that the City has such evidence.” And, “Because the City has produced evidence to make a prima facie showing that defendants knowingly accessed and, without permission, took documents from the City’s Dropbox account, the court finds that Prong Two has been met.”
Regarding the injunction against publishing the files which were taken, the Judge states: “Given the evidence before the court, the injunction is appropriate insofar as it requires defendants to retain all documents in their possession pertaining to the subject files and folders, and to refrain from further accessing the City’s documents without permission. The relative harm to defendants from such an injunction is miniscule, given that it would only prohibit defendants from committing further improper acts.”
Regarding the Defendants claim of prior restraint and citing other cases, the Judge states: “That situation is very different from the one at bar – where there is credible evidence that defendants knowingly accessed and took documents that they had no permission to take.” This relates to the defendants claim of prior restraint and citing the famous Pentagon Papers case in which government documents were leaked to a journalist and published. However, in that case, the documents were not stolen as is alleged and strongly backed up by the City’s evidence in the current case. At the conclusion of the hearing, a date for a trial in the FFF case was set for January 11, 2021 with a mandatory settlement conference set for December 11, 2020.
The City has offered to dismiss the case against the local blog if they return the documents so that they can be properly processed per the California Public Records Act. The City was in the process of fulfilling a public record request when it became evident the blog had already obtained the documents through their unauthorized access. Upon that knowledge, the City began a forensic investigation and based on evidence uncovered in our internal investigation and direction from the City Council, the City Attorney’s Office filed a complaint in October, 2019 seeking a temporary restraining order against the Blog and its contributors. The granted restraining order is limited in scope to protect the 1st Amendment rights of the Blog and seeks only to stop the disclosure of legally protected documents and for all such documents to be returned to the City. It does not seek to quell the Blog’s existence or ability to publish 1st Amendment protected content nor opinion posts.
“The City is pleased with this finding and hope that we can work with the Blog to bring this issue to a close. The City was forced to take legal action to protect the privacy of current and former employees and the public, and we followed State law in our handling of public record requests,” stated Fullerton City Manager, Ken Domer.