Saturday, 25 May 2024

Judge finds for newspaper, Watkins in libel suit

THIS STORY HAS BEEN UPDATED WITH A QUOTE FROM RECORD-BEE PUBLISHER GARY DICKSON AND THE PLAINTIFFS.


KELSEYVILLE – A judge has ruled that the Lake County Record-Bee and a community member owe no damages in a libel suit filed over letters the paper printed earlier this year about the Clear Lake Riviera Community Association and its board.


Judge Vincent Lechowick entered his ruling in favor of the newspaper and Clear Lake Riviera resident Darrell Watkins on Dec. 3, deciding that neither owed any damages to plaintiffs Sid Donnell, Alan Siegel or Sandra Orchid, all former community association board members.


Donnell, Siegel and Orchid filed the suit in small claims court over the summer, claiming defamation of character over a series of letters Watkins had written and the paper had published which the plaintiffs said included false charge against each of them. They were seeking $7,500 each in damages.


Lechowick heard the suit on Nov. 6, and originally had indicated a decision would be issued within a few weeks.


“The judge’s decision was good for the Record-Bee, the media, in general, and for those citizens who have a desire to state their opinion,” Dickson said Tuesday.


Watkins felt vindicated by the decision.


“The little boy and the Record-Bee were victorious in their big battle at the OK Corral against the naked emperor and his gang,” he said. “Alan Siegel, Sid Donnell and Sandra Orchid's shut-up-little-boy bullets bounced right off the thick Free Speech and Freedom of the Press body armor worn by the good guys.”


Reacting to the decision, Donnell said the newspaper successfully smeared and defamed a California State Teacher of the Year, an executive secretary for the Chamber of Commerce and a retired U.S. Army officer.


The result, he said, was that the spirit of volunteerism in a group of individuals who did nothing more than attempt to better their community has been extinguished – all on behalf of a group of individuals who have contributed nothing to their community and “demonstrated a total disregard for their neighbors and their neighborhood.”


Watkins was one of several writers who, over the course of this year, has written letters criticizing Donnell, Siegel and Orchid for a variety of association actions.


He's alleged that they have broken bylaws, not had the bylaws properly accepted by the association membership and have fined homeowners – in some cases, thousands of dollars – for not cutting brush without using an established judicial process.


The content of the letters included allegations of illegal activity, which the plaintiffs said the newspaper had failed to fact-check and which they said had, in turn, damaged their reputations.


The former board members have dismissed all of Watkins' allegations as false.


They also had accused the paper of playing “political football” with a rebuttal letter Donnell had submitted for publication, but which the paper initially refused to print.


At the hearing Dickson said a corporate attorney had advised him not to print Donnell's letter in light of the suit. Siegel insisted the letter was submitted well before the suit was filed. Lechowick suggested the paper should have published it in the interest of fairness.


Dickson indicated at the time that he would publish the letter; however, shortly afterward, Donnell withdrew his publication request. He explained that he, Siegel and Orchid were no longer on the board and wanted to get on with their lives without being subjected to further attack.


Before the Nov. 6 hearing began, Donnell, Siegel and Orchid were served with a lawsuit filed by John Stoddard and a group he formed called We the People.


Filed Oct. 20, the suit names the three as well as another past board member, Boone Bridges, and 100 Does. It seeks injunctive relief and special damages in an unspecified amount.


The suit alleges breaking of election laws, violating the association's covenants, conditions and restrictions and amending those documents without a 50-percent-plus-one vote of homeowners.


This is the second libel suit the Record-Bee has faced this year.


The first suit was filed by neurologist Dr. Camille Keene over an article published in April that claimed she had diagnosed a man with a disease he didn't have. A visiting judge dismissed that case on Oct. 24, but nonetheless said the newspaper had used language “irresponsibly.”


In both cases, the judges indicated during court that the plaintiffs had not proved the damage needed to support a libel case.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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