November 16, 2010 | 2:05pm
Nativo Lopez, Orange County's most controversial political activist, helped organize a 2009 protest against a Southern California frozen food company and distributed leaflets branding the business a "racist employer" because it fired almost 300 warehouse workers who'd provided fake Social Security numbers to get their jobs.
To Lopez, the mass firings by Overhill Farms, Inc. of Vernon weren't just racist but illegal and a trick to employ other workers at lower costs. He said in leaflets that the company was "an abusive and racist employer" that "discriminates against Latinos" and practices exploitation on par with "modern slavery." Lopez, the director of Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana, also organized a boycott of Panda Express, which is an Overhill Farm's client.
The company sued saying that Lopez's boycotts and leaflets were based on blatant lies, and won on several points in a district court.
But Lopez appealed, arguing that his cries of racism were protected speech.
On Monday, a California Court of Appeal based in Santa Ana considered and rejected his claims. In a 28-page opinion written by Justice William Bedsworth and in accord with Justice William Rylaarsdam, the court ruled that Lopez should have known his claims of racism were unfair because he'd been informed that the company only fired the workers after it had been ordered to do so by the IRS, which had discovered the fake Social Security number scam. Lopez, the justices determined, had made his "racist firing claim sound far more credible than it actually is" by giving "materially incomplete and misleading" information to the public.
The third justice on the appellate panel, Richard D. Fybel, dissented in part.
Nativo Lopez can't escape legal woes.
"My colleagues in the majority have incorrectly made this court the first state or federal appellate court in America, ever, to hold that the epithet 'racist' constitutes a provably false assertion of fact as the basis of a claim of defamation," Fybel wrote.
He also argued that while he agrees "the employees' claims might not be persuasive . . . that does not make them defamatory."
Wrote Fybel, "To illustrate this point, would it be actionable if the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, Fox News, or MSNBC complained that actions by anyone were 'racist' or 'discriminatory'? Of course not. Employees complaining about their employer enjoy the same protection."
Based on the 2-1 decision, Lopez and the other defendants must pay the appeal expenses for Overhill Farms. But his troubles are worse in Los Angeles, where prosecutors have charged him with eight felony counts for an alleged voter fraud scheme. According to the Register's Martin Wisckol, Lopez--who has battled Fox's Bill O'Reilly on immigration issues and was recalled as a Santa Ana school board official in 2003 after championing bilingual education--will undergo a mental health hearing later this month.
Lopez, a feisty fellow
who doesn't back down from fights and compares himself to Gandhi
, has enjoyed a rocky public image since the mid 1990s. After losing his congressional seat in 1996 to Loretta Sanchez
, Robert K. Dornan
accused Lopez of stealing the narrow election with illegal immigrant voters in Santa Ana. The Orange County District Attorney's office as well as the state attorney general (both Republicans like Dornan) investigated but couldn't find evidence of Dornan's assertions. Most of the people who Lopez encouraged to vote had already been approved for citizenship by federal officials
and were awaiting a formal swearing-in ceremony.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly