Fresno Unified School District and Trustee Keshia Thomas are seeking dismissal of a defamation lawsuit filed by Bullard High football coach Don Arax, arguing that Thomas’ statements that Arax used racist language is protected speech under the First Amendment.
Thomas told GV Wire that Arax had used the n-word when addressing one of her sons. Her comments came last spring as Bullard was reeling from a social media post that appeared to show a student wearing a KKK hood and that sparked widespread outrage and condemnation and student walkouts.
Hearings were scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday for the anti-SLAPP motions filed by Thomas’ attorney, Bruce Berger, and Mandy Jeffcoach, attorney for Fresno Unified.
Attorney Brian Whelan, who is representing Arax, said a tentative ruling Monday continued Tuesday’s hearing to Thursday, when both motions will be heard in Judge Kristi Culver Capetan’s courtroom. Meanwhile, a tentative ruling could be issued Wednesday, Whelan said.
SLAPP is an acronym for “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” and such suits are filed in an attempt to mute public criticism and intimidate critics and the news media. To counter those suits, anti-SLAPP laws provide some protection for defendants who argue that the speech in question is protected because it’s a matter of public interest.
Earlier this year Fresno City Councilman Nelson Esparza filed a defamation suit against fellow councilmember Garry Bredefeld after Bredefeld went public with allegations by former city attorney Doug Sloan of attempted extortion. In response, Bredefeld filed an anti-SLAPP motion, but the issue became moot after Esparza, who now faces criminal charges, dropped his defamation lawsuit.