A judge who previously dismissed Salem Media Group as a defendant in former Rep. Katie Hill‘s revenge porn lawsuit, alleging nude photos of her were published without her permission, said Wednesday she’s inclined to order the ex-congresswoman to pay the company nearly $55,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yolanda Orozco ruled on April 21 that Salem Media, owner of the conservative blog RedState.com, had shown that the photos were matters of legitimate interest involving a public official because they addressed Hill’s character and qualifications for her position. Salem Media then asked for nearly $70,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs. Hill’s lawyers objected, saying Salem Media’s attorneys were claiming to have spent an unreasonable amount of time on the anti-SLAPP motion and the motion for attorneys’ fees.
The state’s anti-SLAPP — Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — law is intended to prevent people from using courts, and potential threats of a lawsuit, to intimidate those who are exercising their First Amendment rights.
Orozco said in her tentative ruling issued Wednesday that after reviewing Salem Media’s lawyers’ work calculations, she is proposing to award $54,470 in attorneys’ fees and costs. She said that although the amount is less than what the company’s lawyers have recommended, she does not believe their request was improper.
“Nothing before the court indicates that the time spent on the anti-SLAPP motion or the instant motion was unreasonable, duplicative or excessive,” the judge wrote.
Orozco is scheduled to hear arguments Friday before issuing a final ruling.
RedState.com published one article in October 2019 with a link to a photograph of Hill brushing a female staffer’s hair. The blog maintained the photo did not depict any “intimate body part” of Hill and argued that Hill’s actions called into question her character and ability to continue as a representative in American government. In contrast, Hill’s attorneys maintained that the “core injury- producing conduct underlying plaintiff’s claims is the theft and nonconsensual distribution of her private sexual images,” the judge wrote in her ruling dismissing the suit.
But Orozco found that the distribution of the intimate images through their publication on a public website constitutes a “statement” or “other conduct in furtherance” of the right to free speech.
“Here, the intimate images published by (RedState.com) spoke to plaintiff’s character and qualifications for her position, as they allegedly depicted Plaintiff with a campaign staffer with whom it was alleged she had a sexual affair,” the judge wrote. “Accordingly, the images were a matter of public issue or public interest.”
Hill’s lawyer, Carrie Goldberg, told the judge the harm done to Hill is humiliation and she questioned where the line should be drawn when it comes to people having autonomy over their sexual privacy. She said the ruling will encourage the future dissemination of nude photos, exactly the opposite of what was intended by the revenge porn statute. But Orozco said case law shows the conduct of public officials is a matter of public interest and that the media have protection for publishing news that includes images.
Salem Media attorney James J. Holmes told Orozco that the qualifications of political candidates is “clearly a public issue.”
Orozco also granted similar First Amendment-based motions by the Daily Mail and RedState.com Managing Editor Jennifer Van Laar to be removed as defendants in the lawsuit. She awarded the Daily Mail more than $100,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs and Van Laar more than $80,000.
Hill voluntarily dropped Joseph Messina, the host of “The Real Side” radio show, as a defendant in the case, but the judge still ordered Hill to pay him nearly $30,000 in attorneys’ fees.
Orozco previously said she was sympathetic to the impact of the publications of photos on Hill, calling the decisions by Hill’s ex-husband, Kenneth Heslep, to make the images available to the media “tragic and unnecessary.”
Hill submitted a lengthy sworn declaration in opposition to Salem Media’s dismissal motion.
“My nude body is not a matter of public interest,” Hill said. “Moreover, even if my alleged relationship was a matter of public interest, that does not justify the illegal worldwide dissemination of my nude image. I was humiliated and traumatized by the circulation of the nude image.”
Hill sued Dec. 22, alleging in her court papers that she lived in fear that if she ever tried to leave, Heslep would kill them both and their animals. Heslep remains a defendant in the lawsuit. 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.
Hill and Heslep officially divorced last October.
Hill, a Democrat, resigned in 2019 after the nude photos 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 then-husband 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 portions of the Antelope Valley. The seat had long been held by Republicans until Hill’s 2018 victory over then-Rep. Steve Knight. After Hill’s resignation, Republican 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.