Long Beach City Attorney Threatens LB Post Over Negative MedPot Coverage

On June 19, Long Beach police officers raided the THC Collective, a medical marijuana dispensary, for suspicion of operating in violation of the city's hotly-contested pot ordinance. During the raid, a camera captured one officer stepping on the neck of an employee who was lying face down on the ground. Then, after the cops noticed they were being filmed by security cameras, they tried to smash the recording equipment. Not a smart move.

I wrote about the incident for OC Weekly as did Greggory Moore for LB Post, but apparently the Long Beach City Attorney Robert Shannon found the latter's coverage objectionable, because on Aug. 2, he sent a nasty letter to the newspaper's publisher, Dezire Lumachi demanding that the offending article be retracted, threatening unspecified "legal action" if Lumachi failed to do so.

"This office demands the LB Post retract libelous statements printed on August 1, 2012, in the article titled "Has LBPD's Camera-Smashing Exposed the City to More Lawsuits?" written by Greggory Moore," Shannon wrote to Lumachi. "Three of the statements in the article are untrue and defamatory. Moreover, the substance and timing of the article suggest Moore's false statements were printed maliciously to injure City officials and employees in their occupation."

Specifically, Shannon demanded the retraction of the following statements:

*"The [destruction of property--i.e. cameras--by the cops in the raid] may be made worse for the City by the fact that Deputy City Attorney Kendra Carney was present during the June 19 raid."

*"The LBPD's willingness to engage in the practice with a deputy city attorney present might be read as officers' belief that the City Attorney's Office regards such actions as legal."

*Carney . . . declined to comment for this article."

Shannon fails to explain exactly how any of the above statements are untrue or libelous. In any case, his letter failed to get the response he'd hoped. Not only has LB Post not retracted the story, it actually got the ACLU to respond directly to Shannon. The three-page letter lectures Shannon about the legitimacy and non-libelous nature of newspapers questioning the behavior of public officials, and points out that Carney was placed at the collective during the raid by three witnesses, and she failed to respond to Moore's requests for comments for his story.

"For these reasons, any libel action you might bring would not only be baseless, but also would expose your office to liability," wrote Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, referring to state law that prohibits the filing lawsuits purely to stifle free speech.

"I would hope that this is not your only concern, however," Bibring continued. "As an elected official and an attorney, you have both the responsibility to uphold the Constitution's protections for freedom of speech and the press, and the knowledge necessary to to so. Frivolous threats against small, local organizations do not comport with your obligation to abide by the law, as well as enforce it."

For his part, Moore told the Weekly that he believes Shannon is acting out of fear that the city's bullying behavior--as evidenced not just by the video footage but in countless other, similar actions against cannabis collectives--will be exposed for what it is.

"My guess is that Shannon knows the City may be in some trouble over stuff that's gone on," Moore said. "I don't know what sort of legal advice he's been giving the City, but in this case apparently he feels the thing to do is attempt to squelch honest and factually accurate public discussion, First Amendment be damned. I can't speak for Mayor Bob Foster or the city council, but if I were them, this is definitely not the kind of thing I'd want my lawyer doing."

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