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California Court Sides with Goldwater: Upholds Rights of Property Owners—Not Bureaucrats

July 12, 2023

A California appellate court today ruled in favor of a group of Rancho Mirage property owners who had gone to court to challenge city ordinances restricting their right to rent out their property. But in a bizarre—and ultimately unsuccessful—move, the city responded to the lawsuit by claiming that the property owners were violating the city’s free speech rights. They asked the trial judge to dismiss the case on the grounds that it was a form of censorship, and when the judge refused, they appealed. That’s when the Goldwater Institute filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the property owners and showing that the city’s weird legal theory would, if blessed by the courts, deprive Californians everywhere of their right to go to court when government violates their constitutional freedoms.

Odd as the city’s free speech argument was, it was made possible by California’s unique and wrongheaded “anti-SLAPP” law. SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” and the original idea behind the law was a good one: people sometimes sue each other over things that are actually constitutional rights—for example, concocting a lawsuit against someone just for expressing a political opinion you disagree with would be violating that person’s free speech rights. That kind of case is called a “SLAPP,” and the anti-SLAPP law was intended to protect people’s right to speak their minds without fear of such frivolous lawsuits.

Things went wrong, however, when state judges held that the government itself has free speech rights under the anti-SLAPP law. That meant suing the government can qualify as a kind of censorship. And that notion quickly generated abuses—such as this case, in which elected officials tried not only to deprive property owners of their day in court, but possibly even force them to pay fees to the city for daring to speak up for themselves.

The good news is that many California judges have recognized the foolhardiness of this legal theory, and have sought to rein it in—including the trial judge in this case, who rejected the city’s effort to abuse the anti-SLAPP law.

Yet Rancho Mirage didn’t stop there. In a strikingly belligerent move, city leaders appealed the trial judge’s refusal to dismiss the case—something not typically allowed—and insisted on pressing their extraordinary argument at a higher court. That’s when we filed our brief, pointing out that not only was the city clearly abusing the law, but that other cities have adopted similar tactics, seeking to intimidate people into remaining silent when government violates their giths. Even when that tactic fails, it still drives up the costs of litigation and delays cases for months, maybe years. That’s a clear abuse of the legal process.

In today’s decision, the Court of Appeals unanimously rejected Rancho Mirage’s arguments. The justices’ words were dispassionate, but their meaning was plain: the city was clearly in the wrong. “The municipal defendants’ appellate briefs contain no intelligible argument to [support their position],” the justices declared. “The municipal defendants’ briefs make no intelligible attempt to do what the Supreme Court [has] explained a moving defendant must do, namely, ‘identify the acts alleged in the complaint that it asserts are protected and what claims for relief are predicated on them.’ The municipal defendants’ briefs do not identify any act by the municipal defendants that supplies any element of any claim in the complaint.”

That’s an unequivocal defeat for the city—and an important victory for Californians who have the courage to stand up for their rights.

Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Legal Affairs at the Goldwater Institute.



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