Former Cal Football Player's Father Sues Daily Cal Editor in Chief
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Category: News > City > Courts
The father of a former Cal football player is suing The Daily Californian's editor in chief and president Rajesh Srinivasan in a Fresno County small claims court, charging him with intentional infliction of emotional distress related to one article and two blog posts from 2006 and 2007 that remain in the newspaper's online archives.
In a series of e-mail exchanges with Srinivasan, Harvey Purtz, a Fresno podiatrist, requested that Srinivasan remove the articles - written about now-deceased Chris Purtz's altercation at a San Francisco nightclub - because they "inflict harm" upon his son's memory, calling for $7,500 in damages after Srinivasan's consistent refusal of his requests, despite the editor's citations of company policy.
Chris Purtz died in June 2010.
In the summons, Purtz claims Srinivasan owes him $4,500 in "general damages for severe emotional distress and mental suffering" as well as $3,000 as recompense for being made to defend his family's reputation from alleged defamatory remarks about his son.
However, some legal experts say it will be difficult for Purtz to prove his case.
"(Purtz is) not saying exactly what caused stress, and in this situation it's hard to say that anything the paper did caused more emotional distress than the death of his son," said Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center. "The first question the judge is going to ask is 'What is defamatory?'"
Purtz's suit references a Daily Cal article published Oct. 12, 2006, which details then-senior Chris Purtz's involvement in a physical and verbal confrontation with employees of the Lusty Lady, a San Francisco adult club. The suit also references two pieces on The Daily Clog discussing Chris Purtz's departure from the football team, which were posted online on Jan.17 and Feb. 19 of 2007.
Purtz contacted Srinivasan via e-mail last year on July 23, requesting that the online articles be taken down due to their "hostile" nature, citing his son's death as a source of additional pain. Srinivasan denied his request.
Purtz continued to e-mail Srinivasan between July and October calling for the articles' removal before requesting $7,500 in damages, which Srinivasan refused to pay. By Oct. 20, Purtz had filed a small claims case with Fresno Superior Court.
While the main charge leveled against Srinivasan is emotional distress, Purtz's claim suggests that The Daily Californian provided misinformation about his son's involvement in the incidents depicted in the articles. The suit, however, is filed solely against Srinivasan - who has been the editor in chief and president since May 2010 and has worked for the paper since Dec. 2007 - and not The Daily Californian.
Peter Scheer, the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said that succeeding in any kind of libel action under United States law is an "uphill battle" against freedom of press. He added that measures such as anti-SLAPP defenses - used mostly to combat lawsuits seeking only to burden defendants with legal expenditures and court procedures - could stop these claims.
On Nov. 29, Purtz filed a request for a court order preceding the hearing asking that the case remain confidential and that Srinivasan refrain from commenting on the case, citing "websites destroying my son and presenting him in a false light" as the reason.
The request was denied by Judge F. Brian Alvarez the next day.
"I get these sorts of take-down requests pretty often," Srinivasan said. "I was following company policy, which was here years before I was - I can't just run rogue in making these decisions."
Purtz declined multiple requests for comment on the case.
"Newspapers and their websites do not pull stories because they reflect, at some point after publication, badly on the people involved," said Allen Matthews, a San Francisco Chronicle editor who chairs the Daily Cal's board of directors.
After receiving notice of his summons, Srinivasan sought aid from the Student Press Law Center, who assigned James Wagstaffe of Kerr & Wagstaffe LLP as counsel. Daniel Zaheer, an attorney with the firm, has also advised on the case.
David Levine, a professor at UC Hastings College of Law who specializes in California civil procedure, said California's two-year statute of limitations for tort cases - cases wherein a party is injured by a civil wrong, including both intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation - could make Purtz's claim difficult to prove.
"There's an issue about the survivability of defamation cases after the subject is deceased," he said. "In terms of this case, he would have to prove his damages and separate his grief caused by the son's death from (the grief) caused by the article."
An original hearing date was set for Dec. 16, but Srinivasan filed a request with the court to move the hearing in order to avoid conflict with his final exams at UC Berkeley.
"This is an egregious abuse of the legal system and of the vital purpose of our state's small claims court process," Matthews said. "I'm sorry about the family's loss, but grief is not an excuse for Dr. Purtz to file a reprehensible claim against the current student editor, who was in high school when the original article appeared, and not against the newspaper itself. As a result, Srinivasan will need to skip classes to attend a hearing in Fresno, nearly 200 miles from Berkeley."
The hearing is scheduled for Jan. 19.
True Shields is the lead courts reporter. Contact him at [email protected]
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