LOS ANGELES – A judge erred when she granted a motion by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, to dismiss a libel and slander lawsuit brought by the Republican she defeated in November 2020, a state appellate court ruled Wednesday.
Plaintiff Joe E. Collins III alleged the 84-year-old Democratic congresswoman’s campaign materials and radio commercials falsely stated that the Navy veteran was dishonorably discharged. Collins said he served honorably for 13 1/2 years in the Navy, receiving decorations and commendations.
The three-justice panel of the Second District Court of Appeal unanimously reversed an April 2021 ruling by Judge Yolanda Orozco. During the hearing on Waters’ motion to dismiss the case, the judge told Donna Bullock, Collins’ attorney, that the lawyer had not come close to proving actual malice.
Orozco recently retired, so the case will now proceed to trial with a different judge.
“The preliminary posture of the case required the court to accept Collins’ evidence as true,” Justice John Shepard Wiley Jr. wrote. “His evidence created a possible inference of Waters’ willful blindness, which is probative of actual malice. It was error to grant Waters’ anti-SLAPP motion.”
The state’s anti-SLAPP — Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — law is intended to prevent people from using courts, and potential threats of a lawsuit, to intimidate those who are exercising their First Amendment rights.
“Free speech is vital in America, but truth has a place in the public square as well,” Wiley wrote. “Reckless disregard for the truth can create liability for defamation. When you face powerful documentary evidence your accusation is false, when checking is easy, and when you skip the checking but keep accusing, a jury could conclude you have crossed the line.”
Bullock said she and Collins are pleased with the appellate court ruling and the fact the justices believed that Waters had crossed the line between free speech and defamation. Bullock, who said Collins was most concerned all along with veterans’ rights in filing the suit, said that Waters or anyone else could have gone online and paid $25 to find out a veteran’s discharge status.
Collins left the Navy as a decorated veteran upon a general discharge under honorable conditions, according to his court papers, which further state that he left the military so he could run for office, which he could not do while on active duty.
In September 2020, the Waters campaign published a two-sided piece of literature with an “unflattering” photo of Collins that stated, “Republican candidate Joe Collins was dishonorably discharged, played politics and sued the U.S. military. He doesn’t deserve military dog tags or your support,” according to the suit.
The reverse side of the ad had a photo of Waters and text complimenting her for her record with veterans, according to the plaintiff.
In a sworn declaration in favor of dismissing the suit, Waters stated the information was obtained from a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Michael Anello.
“In other words, I am being sued for quoting the written decision of a federal judge in my campaign literature,” said Waters.
Collins met in 2018 with Waters’ staff and provided direct information about his discharge status, according to his suit, which says she “knew or should have known that Collins was not dishonorably discharged and the accusation was made with actual malice.”
The plaintiff also cited a Waters radio campaign commercial that aired last fall and included the congresswoman stating, “Joe Collins was kicked out of the Navy and was given a dishonorable discharge. Oh yes, he was thrown out of the Navy with a dishonorable discharge. Joe Collins is not fit for office and does not deserve to be elected to public office. Please vote for me. You know me.”
Waters stated in the radio ad that Collins’ health benefits were paid for by the Navy, which would not be possible if he had been dishonorably discharged, according to the plaintiff.
“The words uttered were a false statement because Collins was discharged from the United States Navy by a general discharge under honorable conditions and not by dishonorable discharge,” the suit stated.
“Plaintiff has failed to provide evidence, much less clear and convincing evidence, that defendants subjectively knew that their statements were false or that they entertained serious doubt as to statements’ truth,” Orozco wrote in her ruling.
“The irony is not lost on me that some of the money Collins raised from Donald Trump supporters across the country will actually be applied to my legal defense against his trash lawsuit,” Waters said after the April 2021 ruling.