Coalinga grad loses MySpace rant lawsuit
Posted at 11:28 PM on Monday, Sep. 20, 2010
When a Coalinga High School principal sent a former student's MySpace.com rant to the local newspaper, his conduct was "outrageous," a Fresno County Superior Court jury ruled Monday.
But, the jury ruled, the action didn't damage her.
The mixed verdict ended Cynthia Moreno's lawsuit and her hopes to make Roger Campbell and the Coalinga-Huron Joint Unified School District pay for his actions.
In December 2006, Moreno sued Campbell and the district, claiming she received death threats after her "An Ode to Coalinga" was published by the hometown newspaper.
The Coalinga Record obtained a copy of Moreno's rambling essay from Campbell, then the principal of Coalinga High School and now superintendent of the Coalinga-Huron Joint Unified School District.
Jurors deliberated a little more than two hours before reaching a verdict.
On the first question -- "Was the conduct of Roger Campbell and the Coalinga Huron School District outrageous?" -- jurors voted 10-2 that it was. But on the second -- "Was the conduct of Roger Coleman and the Coalinga Huron School District a substantial factor in causing damage to the Plaintiff?" -- jurors voted 9-3 that it wasn't. Civil cases do not require unanimous verdicts.
After the verdict was read, Moreno left the courtroom in tears and rushed past reporters. But her Berkeley attorney, Paul Kleven, responded to an e-mail request for comment.
"We were happy that the jury agreed that Mr. Campbell's conduct was outrageous," he wrote. "We also felt that we had proven that Mr. Campbell's outrageous conduct was a substantial factor in causing harm to the family, but ... the jury unfortunately did not agree with us."
Fresno attorney Paul Auchard, who represented Campbell and the school district, declined to comment other than to say "the verdict speaks for itself."
Campbell could not be reached to comment.
Moreno graduated from Coalinga High in 2002. Now 26, she is a reporter in Fresno working for the Spanish-language newspaper Vida en el Valle, which is published by The Bee.
In court last week, she defended the essay, which criticized her hometown and its residents.
When Moreno wrote the essay, she was a 21-year-old student at the University of California at Berkeley. She told jurors it was simply her opinions about former classmates who picked on her for being a chubby, nerdy girl who liked school, and was not meant as a "slap in the face" to the city or its residents.
After she enrolled at Cal in the spring of 2003, however, she lost weight, and her new look caught the attention of Coalinga residents when she returned for a high school football game in the fall of 2005.
When she returned to Cal, Moreno said, she stewed over the experience, and then wrote about it. The essay appeared on her MySpace social network page on Oct. 3, 2005.
Almost immediately, she started to get criticism by e-mail, she told jurors. Her younger sister, a freshman at Coalinga High, was getting harassed because of it.
Six days later, Moreno took her essay off the site.
But by then students and teachers had circulated copies of it at Coalinga High. Campbell faxed it to the Coalinga Record, which published the essay without Moreno's permission.
Shortly afterward, Moreno said, she received more e-mails that cursed and threatened her.
Moreno sued Campbell, the Coalinga-Huron Unified School District and the Coalinga Record, alleging invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress in December 2006. The following year, most of claims were dismissed.
Her lawyer appealed to the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno, which ruled in April 2009 that she could pursue a narrower claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress against Campbell and the school district. But, the court said, she would have to persuade a jury that Campbell's actions were "extreme and outrageous."
In the ruling, the appellate panel said she couldn't sue for invasion of privacy, saying Moreno gave up that claim when she posted the writing on MySpace.
Some First Amendment experts had feared that if Moreno was successful, it would have a chilling effect on the news-gathering process because the lawsuit went after Campbell for bringing the newspaper an authentic piece of information that was public.