These days, making the San Diego City Council look good is about as hard as getting Mike Aguirre or Jerry Sanders to back away from a microphone-it's damn near impossible. But the La Mesa City Council, against all odds, has done it.
Every Tuesday morning, a few zealous citizens exercise their First Amendment rights by standing at the podium in the chambers of the San Diego City Council and, for three minutes apiece, verbally molest the elected officials in ways that make even the most vigilant protector of free speech cringe. Using language that is at times incredibly crude, these people accuse the city leaders of engaging in corrupt, criminal and immoral behavior. But, to their credit, the City Council members sit there, keep their mouths shut and take it. They may not like it, but they understand that this is the citizenry's time to talk back to-or lash out at-their representatives.
The abuse might go down a little easier if the person talking appears insane, as do some of the noisemakers in San Diego. It's perhaps harder to take when the member of the public is rational and coherent.
That seems to be the case with La Mesa resident Chris Tanner, who on Jan. 24 appeared before his City Council to talk about changes to regulations governing the use of explosives at construction sites. Some members of the City Council heard Tanner suggest that perhaps the changes amounted to an improper gift to developers. Apparently emotionally wounded, La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid directed City Attorney Glenn Sabine to fire off a letter to Tanner demanding an apology and threatening legal action in the event of noncompliance.
The Jan. 31 letter informs Tanner that he "made remarks suggesting that the La Mesa City Council (or several of its members) had perhaps conspired with developers to ease the application of blasting regulations... for some form of personal gain. ... Quite frankly, the message conveyed by your remarks... is wholly inaccurate and defamatory-and thereby unacceptable."
Then Sabine invoked La Mesa's neighbors to the west: "This is especially true considering that the public now misapplies a tainted view to all local officials due to the recent embarrassments involving the city of San Diego."
So, it seems Sabine is suggesting that because some elected officials in San Diego have either been convicted of crimes or are under the microscope of an ongoing corruption investigation, that makes Tanner's comments even more defamatory-even more illegal.
Are Madrid and Sabine and their cohorts trying to beat their San Diego counterparts in a game of self-embarrassment? Ralph Inzunza's stupidity notwithstanding, at least city leaders in San Diego are embarrassing themselves over hundreds of millions in dollars. The bumpkins in La Mesa are doing it because a random citizen hurt their feelings. Please, Mayor Madrid, get a grip. Toughen up a little bit, why don't you?
The reality is that a person can say just about anything in a public hearing. The legal term is "privilege." Citizens generally enjoy the privilege of verbally abusing their representatives in a public meeting in ways they can't in other settings, and City Attorney Sabine should know that. Tanner would have to have spun a very specific tale of criminal activity or immoral behavior for anyone to even begin to consider it defamatory in this situation.
Madrid further embarrassed himself in an e-mail to his colleagues. Tanner "made the charge and now he has to prove it," Madrid wrote.
No, Mr. Madrid, that is not correct. If you sue someone for defamation, the burden is on you to prove that what was said is both false and defamatory. You're the suing party; you have to prove your case. And because you're a public figure, your burden is even higher than an average citizen's would be. You also have to prove that Tanner delivered his remarks with "actual malice," a legal term of art meaning with full knowledge that the defamatory statements were false. The way we see it, if La Mesa sues, Tanner's case is a slam-dunk.
What Madrid is attempting to do is intimidate the people of La Mesa. He's trying to jump up and down upon the public's right to dissent. It's because of people like Art Madrid that we have laws protecting people like Chris Tanner.
Sabine's letter to Tanner says Tanner can avoid a lawsuit if he issues a public apology. Tanner should do nothing of the kind. We agree with First Amendment advocate Terry Francke, who said in an interview with the U-T that it's Madrid and his pals who should be doing the apologizing-to Tanner and all the citizens of La Mesa.