A judge said Wednesday she was inclined to dismiss on First Amendment grounds part of a defamation suit by former Rep. Katie Hill concerning a reporter who co-authored a story featuring nude photos of Hill with a female campaign staff member and holding a bong appearing to contain marijuana.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yolanda Orozco said she will instead wait until April 8 to hear a motion filed late Tuesday by Hill’s attorneys to reopen discovery and conduct a short deposition of reporter Jennifer Van Laar to determine the identities of the parties with whom she shared the images.
Hill’s lawyers, including Carrie Goldberg, maintain that Van Laar had no First Amendment protection in distributing the photos, especially the one involving the bong. Lawyers for Van Laar maintain the limited discovery will not turn up any relevant new information. In her tentative ruling, the judge said Van Laar had shown the photos were matters of legitimate interest involving a public official.
“(Van Laar) has established that the images are a matter of public concern, as they speak to (Hill’s) character and qualifications for her position, allegedly depicting an extramarital sexual relationship with a paid campaign staff member and the use of illegal drugs by a sitting congresswoman,” Orozco wrote.
Hill’s argument that the images are not a matter of public concern because Van Laar could have simply described the images rather than publishing them is “unpersuasive,” according to the judge, because the fact that information to be gleaned from an image may be disseminated in an alternative manner “does not equate to a finding that the image itself is not a matter of public concern.”
According to media reports, Van Laar was a campaign advisor to former Rep. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, who was unseated by Hill in 2018. A story co-written by Van Laar that appeared in the Daily Mail in October 2019 featuring nude photos of Hill with the female campaign staffer followed a series of reports published on RedState.com, a conservative political site that lists Van Laar as its deputy managing editor.
The 33-year-old Hill submitted a lengthy sworn declaration in opposition to Van Laar’s dismissal motion.
“Van Laar knew, or should have known, that I had a reasonable expectation that the images would remain private,” Hill said. “Van Laar refers to herself as a journalist in her declaration. I believe that California’s law against the nonconsensual distribution of intimate images is widely known and believe that someone that describes themselves as a journalist would be aware of it too.”
Moreover, Hill said, “I understand that adults over the age of 21 can legally use marijuana for recreational and/or medical purposes in California. I have, at various points, been prescribed medicinal marijuana in California. To the best of my knowledge, the recreational use of marijuana by adults has been legal in California since 2016.”
Hill’s lawsuit was filed Dec. 22 and also targets her ex-husband, Kenneth Heslep, the Daily Mail and RedState.com. She alleges in her court papers that she lived in fear that if she ever tried to leave, Heslep would kill them both and their animals. In October 2019, months after Hill had left her relationship with Heslep for good, RedState.com published “the first in a barrage of articles that included pictures and intimate text messages,” according to Hill’s court papers. “Then the sexually graphic photos were released.”
Hill “suffered extreme emotional distress, attempted suicide and was forced to quit her job, which in this case was the representative of California’s 25th Congressional District, one of the most difficult-to-get jobs in the universe,” her court papers state.
On Dec. 8, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered Heslep to stay at least 100 yards away from his 33-year-old ex-wife, as well as her mother and sister. The ex-couple officially divorced in October.
Hill, a Democrat, resigned her seat in 2019 after the nude photos of her were published and news emerged that she had a three-way relationship with her husband and a campaign staffer. She was also accused of having an affair with a member of her congressional staff.
Hill publicly blamed her husband then for the release of the photos. Speaking in Congress in 2019, she decried a “misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse, this time with the entire country watching.”
The 25th Congressional District includes the Antelope Valley. The seat had long been held by Republicans until Hill’s 2018 victory over Knight. After Hill’s resignation, Republican Rep. Mike Garcia defeated Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith in a special election to fill the final 7 1/2 months of the term.
Garcia then beat Smith again by a razor-thin margin in November’s election for a full two-year term.