Brookhurst Village, an Anaheim condominium complex, was at the center of an unusual free-speech case last week.
Some may find the ruling equally unusual.
Incumbent Brookhurst Village homeowners-association-board director Mohammed Alam campaigned for re-election at a September 2009 meeting. Former Brookhurst board president Veronica Cabrera, though no longer a resident, was there to campaign for a slate of candidates other than Alam.
During the meeting, Cabrera accused Alam of being “a dictator,” adding that board funds went missing during his tenure. Alam then rose to ask what happened to a $100 rebate Cabrera had promised while she was president.
Cabrera sued Alam for slander, and the case eventually wound up before the state appeals court in Santa Ana, which found last week that free-speech protections extend to elections for governing boards of condo associations.
The panel added that no evidence was presented that Alam knowingly presented a falsehood–seeing as how the missing-rebates question was never resolved. In other words, all indications were Alam believed he was telling the truth. And he only rose to defend himself amid Cabrera's accusations.
If Alam and Cabrera were private citizens arguing over a business deal in which Alam knowingly accused her of a theft she did not pull off, she might have a case. But the appeals court piggybacked on a 2000 California Supreme Court decision that held planned development units are “a little democratic society” whose
governing bodies are regulated by the same kinds of open-meeting laws as
public agencies. “For many Californians,” the high court noted, “the homeowners association functions as a second municipal government.”
So, case closed? Not exactly. Bob Egelko writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that Cabrera may appeal to the state Supreme Court. “I
don't believe there's any forum that's appropriate for persons to
defame another person,” explains her attorney, Jeffrey Roberts, “particularly accuse them of crimes.”