Courts & Crime

Suit over MySpace rant has First Amendment implications

A jury will begin deliberations Monday in the case of a woman who accuses her former high school principal of ruining her family's life.

In 2005, Cynthia Moreno posted a rant about her hometown of Coalinga, Calif., on the social-networking site, thinking only her Internet friends would be interested. But Roger Campbell, then principal of Coalinga High School, sent a copy to the local newspaper, which published it.

The result, Moreno said, was intense community outrage, leading to death threats that drove her family out of town. Someone even shot the family dog.

The dog recovered — but Moreno didn't. Now she is trying to make Campbell pay. But if she prevails, experts say, the legal result could have a chilling effect on the news-gathering process nationwide. That's because she's going after Campbell for bringing the newspaper an authentic piece of information that was public.

"The message would be to think twice — no, three times — before you provide truthful information to the press," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition. "It could cause some people to stop doing it."

The case is full of ironies, most notably the fact that Moreno is a Fresno reporter. She works for the Spanish-language newspaper Vida en el Valle, which is published by The Bee.

She and her lawyer refused to speak to The Bee about their case.

The suit revolves around Moreno's "Ode to Coalinga," a rambling essay that criticizes her hometown and its residents. In it, she wrote: " ... the older I get, the more I realize how much I despise Coalinga." She was then 21 and a student at the University of California at Berkeley.

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