A Fresno jury will begin deliberations Monday in the case of a former Coalinga High School student who accuses her principal of ruining her family's life.
In 2005, Cynthia Moreno posted a rant about Coalinga on the MySpace.com social-networking site, thinking only her Internet friends would be interested. But Roger Campbell, then principal of Coalinga High School, sent a copy to the local newspaper, which published it.
The result, Moreno said, was intense community outrage, leading to death threats that drove her family out of town. Someone even shot the family dog.
The dog recovered -- but Moreno didn't. Now she is trying to make Campbell pay. But if she prevails, experts say, the legal result could have a chilling effect on the news-gathering process nationwide. That's because she's going after Campbell for bringing the newspaper an authentic piece of information that was public.
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"The message would be to think twice -- no, three times -- before you provide truthful information to the press," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition. "It could cause some people to stop doing it."
The case is full of ironies, most notably the fact that Moreno is a Fresno reporter. She works for the Spanish-language newspaper Vida en el Valle, which is published by The Bee.
She and her lawyer refused to speak to The Bee about their case.
'Ode to Coalinga'
The suit revolves around Moreno's "Ode to Coalinga," a rambling essay that criticizes her hometown and its residents. In it, she wrote: " ... the older I get, the more I realize how much I despise Coalinga." She was then 21 and a student at the University of California at Berkeley.
Now 26, Moreno defended her essay during a trial that began last week in Fresno County Superior Court.
Moreno, who graduated from Coalinga High in 2002, told jurors it was not meant as a "slap in the face" to the city or its residents, but simply to express her opinion about former classmates who picked on her for being a chubby, nerdy girl who liked school.
For years, she said, she hated her classmates who shot spit wads in her hair and pulled chairs out from under her. She said some accused her "of trying to be white."
That all changed after she enrolled at Cal in the spring of 2003. 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.
Over the loudspeaker, the announcer called attention to her, saying she looked great, Moreno recalled. Young men who wouldn't talk to her at Coalinga High now were interested.
In the grandstands, Moreno testified, she overheard former female classmates whisper that she was a conceited snob.
After returning to Cal, Moreno said, she began to stew over the experience. "I was angry. I was upset," she testified. "Why were they so superficial? Why were they making rude remarks?"
So in the middle of the night, Moreno wrote her feelings, letting it all out. She described her essay to jurors as "a stream of consciousness," her way of lashing back at her tormentors.
In it, she wrote, "Every time I look at where I am at, where I am going and what I have become, I can't help but look at everyone else as if they haven't matured nor broken out of the Coalinga norm."
She also mocks them. "I don't give them my sympathy for I was always two steps ahead of the game."
Moreno, who graduated from Cal with a degree in legal studies, vowed in her essay to become "one bad-ass corporate Latina lawyer."
She concluded that living in Coalinga was a waste of time. "When I look back to my friends in Coalinga, I don't miss a single moment with them because the moments were never real," she said.
Moreno's essay appeared on her MySpace page on Oct. 3, 2005. Almost immediately, she started to get criticism by e-mail, she told jurors. She said she became gravely concerned when her younger sister, Araceli, then a freshman at Coalinga High, told her she 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 Pamela Pond, then editor at the the Coalinga Record. Without Moreno's permission, her essay was published Oct. 12, 2005, bearing her full name.
Shortly afterward, Moreno said, she received more e-mails that cursed and threatened her. One e-mail shown to jurors told Moreno to commit suicide.
"I was scared," she testified, wiping tears from her eyes. "You have a whole town versus me."
Fresno attorney Paul Auchard, who represents Campbell, told jurors that residents had a right to be offended. A local club had given Moreno a scholarship. Her teachers had written letters of recommendations so Moreno could get into college.
The legal journey
Once the newspaper published her essay, Moreno said stress caused her to blow her midterms and get kicked out of Cal in January 2006. She was later reinstated after improving her grades at a community college.
In December 2006, she sued Campbell, the Coalinga-Huron Unified School District and the Coalinga Record for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. But in 2007, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Adolfo Corona dismissed Moreno's claims under the state's "SLAPP" statute. The law, named after "strategic lawsuits against public participation," targets lawsuits meant to quiet criticism protected by the First Amendment.
Moreno's 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.
"Cynthia's affirmative act made her article available to any person with a computer and thus opened it to the public eye," the court said in its ruling. "Under these circumstances, no reasonable person would have had an expectation of privacy regarding the published material."
To prevail on an emotional-distress claim under California law, Moreno must prove that Campbell acted with reckless disregard for her well-being and that of her family when he gave her essay to the newspaper.
In closing arguments Thursday, both sides laid out their cases.
Though Moreno's words were on MySpace for six days, Moreno and her family weren't worried until after the newspaper published it, said Berkeley attorney Paul Kleven, who represents the family.
"The real damage was not caused by the Internet, but by an older device -- the printing press," he told jurors.
Kleven also said Campbell was offended by the essay and knew it would outrage the community and put the family at risk.
But Auchard, who represents Campbell, blamed Moreno for her family's troubles.
She knew the public would read her essay, he told jurors. "That's why it's called the World Wide Web," Auchard said.
When Campbell got a copy of the essay, "it was already well-known in the community," Auchard said. Campbell had faxed items of community interest to the editor in the past, he said. "Some were published, some weren't," the lawyer said. "He had no say on whether it was published."
Auchard called Moreno's lawsuit a classic case of "Internet regret" -- her attempt to blame someone else.
The fact that Moreno's case has gotten this far is of concern to Scheer, the First Amendment advocate. He said the laws are clear that newspapers have the right to publish accurate information that's of public interest.
"The courts in this case haven't done a good job of making the law clear," he said.
Jeffrey D. Neuburger, an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York City, said the Moreno lawsuit is "a directional case" because it could shape future litigation if upheld on appeal.
"People are interested in seeing how courts handle cyberspace postings in the future," he said.
Scheer said Moreno exercised her right to express herself and now wants to prohibit others from doing the same.
He said if she was bullied and her family was threatened, she should go after the tormentors -- not the source who provided accurate information to a newspaper.
If she prevails, Scheer said, "the public will be greatly harmed, because the flow of information about public interest will be cut off."
Because juries are known "to do crazy things," Scheer said, he's worried about a verdict that would affect sources who freely give information to the press.
"This jury has been given a lot of leeway," he said.