A state appeals court has thrown out a libel suit filed by Oakland City Councilwoman Desley Brooks against San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson. The three-judge panel unanimously upheld a lower court decision that also went against Brooks. In an unpublished opinion, the appellate court agreed with the lower court that it didn’t matter whether Johnson wrote false things about Brooks — as long as his article, taken as a whole, was "substantially true."
The court’s decision stemmed from a lawsuit Brooks filed against Johnson over a column he penned in June 2008. Johnson’s column concerned allegations of corruption inside Oakland City Hall and focused mostly on then City Administrator Deborah Edgerly. But Johnson also leveled an allegation against Brooks that apparently had never been made in the news media before. He claimed in the piece, without attribution, that police had found actual evidence of Brooks taking illegal kickbacks while in office, saying “police investigators linked bank deposits made by the mother of one of Brooks' employees to several personal checks for $1,200 written to Brooks (exactly half the employee's paycheck).”
Brooks was able to prove in court that the allegation was false, noting that the mother of the employee to whom Johnson had referred died before Brooks even became a council member — so the woman could not have deposited kickbacks in Brooks’ bank account. However, the appellate court ruled that it didn’t matter whether the passage was true or not, because the panel said the kickback allegation did not change the overall “gist” or "sting" of Johnson’s story. The court noted that there were widespread allegations of corruption in City Hall at the time, and it was well-known that both the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office and the Oakland Public Ethics Commission had investigated Brooks.
In other words, the court said it’s okay for newspapers to publish an untrue statement about a public figure as long as the falsehood is surrounded by true facts that also portray that person in a negative light. However, the three-judge panel also decided that its opinion will be not be binding on other courts when it decided it will to make it “unpublished.” It’s not clear whether Brooks will appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.