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Appeals court upholds libel verdict against CalCoastNews 

Judges for the California Court of Appeals' 2nd District upheld a SLO County jury's 2017 libel verdict against CalCoastNews.

click to enlarge DENIED A state appeals court upheld a $1.1 million libel verdict against CalCoastNews in a Jan. 29 decision. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • DENIED A state appeals court upheld a $1.1 million libel verdict against CalCoastNews in a Jan. 29 decision.

In a unanimous decision, the court affirmed the verdict against the local website in connection with a 2012 article about waste management businessman Charles Tenborg authored by reporters Karen Velie and Dan Blackburn. The verdict resulted in a combined judgment of $1.1 million in damages levied against the website and both reporters.

"This decision vindicates the jury's verdict," James Wagstaffe, Tenborg's attorney, told New Times. "We want readers to understand that CalCoastNews is not a reliable source. This court's decision makes it clear that they are not to be relied upon."

According to the court's Jan. 29 opinion, the appeal was rejected in part because a full record of the original trial was not provided. Both sides initially waived a court reporter until Blackburn and Velie later hired one, resulting in the lack of a transcript for the first three days of the trial.

"We understand the protection afforded the press by the First Amendment," the opinion read. "But these reporters have not given us the means to address their concerns."

The court's ruling also shot down some of CalCoastNews' other arguments in favor of overturning the verdict, including that the jury didn't receive proper instructions and that some statements and a photo in the article were not actually defamatory. Wagstaffe indicated the appeals court's ruling was particularly important at a time when fairness and accuracy in journalism has become a much-debated topic.

"There is so much opportunity for falsehoods to be reported online, so there's more responsibility to be accurate," Wagstaffe said. "If there are weeds in the journalism garden, they must be weeded."

Although the story in question was taken down after the verdict, Velie and Blackburn have stood by it, and the website has featured multiple stories about Tenborg and his relationship with the SLO County Integrated Waste Management Authority (IWMA) and its former manager Bill Worrell. After reports funded by a local citizen's group raised questions about financial operations at the agency, including transactions between Worrell and Tenborg, the IWMA commissioned a forensic audit, and the SLO County District Attorney's Office also announced that it was conducting an investigation.

"Let's not lose sight of the fact that Karen and I are not the ones who are under criminal investigation by law enforcement—that would be the IWMA, Bill Worrell, Charles Tenborg," Blackburn, who no longer writes news for the website, wrote in an email statement to New Times. "They're finished, and we're just getting started."

SLO County Assistant District Attorney Eric Dobroth said he could not isolate any specific individual in connection with the IWMA investigation, characterizing it as "fairly broad" and "very active."

Wagstaffe characterized the outlet's articles as continued attempts to assassinate the character of his client.

"They keep attacking Charles," he said. "But the answer to false speech is true speech and to point out the falsehoods, and that's what Charles did."

Velie did not respond to a request for comment from New Times. Δ

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