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Two San Francisco Superior Court judges have thrown out libel lawsuits filed by former San Francisco city attorney candidate Stephen Williams against SF Weekly and The Examiner. In separate rulings, Judge Ronald Quidachay, who presided over the SF Weekly case, and Judge David Garcia, ruling in the Examiner suit, agreed that Williams’ cases could be stricken under the state’s anti-SLAPP statute. “This is a classic case of a candidate for public office trying to chill a reporter’s right to express his opinion about the qualifications of a candidate,” said Keith Fong, an attorney at San Francisco’s Kerr & Wagstaffe who represented The Examiner and its publisher, Florence Fang. Williams placed third in the last city attorney election with 19 percent of the vote. Current City Attorney Dennis Herrera beat the second-place finisher, James Lazarus, in a runoff election. Williams, who represented himself, said both papers published negative articles about him just before the election that ultimately influenced its outcome. He sued both newspapers for articles he described as “political hit pieces.” The SF Weekly piece, penned by columnist Matt Smith about two weeks before the election, claimed Williams was misrepresenting himself as an advocate for the poor. Smith said Williams was an example of “faux progressivism we don’t need in a city attorney.” Columnist Warren Hinckle wrote The Examiner piece, which was published six days before the election. In it, Hinckle accused Williams of “anti-Semitism” during a campaign speech. Hinckle also accused Williams of distributing racist campaign mailers depicting Mayor Willie Brown as a “black jockey atop a horse.” Williams blasted both articles in letters to the editor, claiming the facts had been distorted. But Judge Quidachay ruled Williams’ case against the SF Weekly did not meet the standard of proof for libel. “This lawsuit arises from an act of the SF Weekly . . . in furtherance of their right of free speech under the United States and California Constitutions in connection with a public issue, and this is subject to a motion to strike” under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, Quidachay wrote. Judge Garcia, who presided over The Examiner case, threw Williams’ case out under the same reasoning. “Because the plaintiff is a public figure, he must also show by clear and convincing evidence that each defendant acted with the requisite actual malice,” Judge Garcia wrote. Williams said he thinks it’s ironic that the SF Weekly suit was thrown out under the state’s anti-SLAPP statute. “SLAPP was set up to help the little guy against large corporations’ attempts to silence criticism,” he said. “The Weekly is owned by a large, out-of state corporation, even though they pretend to be a local paper.” Fenwick & West partner Laurence Pulgram, who represented SF Weekly, said he thinks Williams is being too sensitive. “The law requires people in politics to have a thick skin, and this was a candidate for city attorney. In a political campaign there has to be a lot of vigorous discussion,” he said. Williams said he does not plan to appeal the decisions. “I’m not ever going to run for public office again,” he said. “The media controls the elections here.”

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