A judge has thrown out part of a lawsuit seeking millions of dollars in damages from Rep.-elect C. Christopher Cox, who had faced charges of libel from est founder Werner Erhard for labeling Erhard's group "a destructive cult."
Superior Court Commissioner Eleanor M. Palk, in a ruling Friday, said that the offending statements by the Cox campaign were standard fare in the heat of a political race and clearly represented an opinion that is protected by the Constitution.
But at the same time, Palk refused to dismiss a second part of Erhard's suit alleging that Cox slandered Erhard by putting out calls to voters about their views on a candidate's ties "with that cult est."
One of Cox's primary rivals in his successful bid for the Republican nomination in the 40th Congressional District was Newport Beach businessman Nathan Rosenberg--who is Erhard's brother. In the race, Cox sought to tarnish Rosenberg's reputation by linking him to the self-awareness movement, known as est, that Erhard started.
The Cox campaign sent out about 110,000 mailers to GOP voters in the district, hitting Rosenberg for his est ties. In the publication are quotations that describe est as a "destructive cult" and that say "what Erhard has done is utterly disastrous."
But Palk rejected the claim of libel by the San Francisco-based firm of Erhard & Associates, which complained that the mailer could harm its Orange County seminars, awareness programs and other financial interests aimed at promoting "human potential."
In throwing out the libel allegation, Palk ruled that the statements in the Cox mailer are opinions that cannot be deemed defamatory under the law.
Also, the judge said: "The linking of a candidate to an organization in the manner depicted in the mailer is not unusual during a campaign. The electorate receives literature replete with charges, epithets, etc."
Although part of the Erhard lawsuit remains intact, the Cox camp claimed victory with the dismissal of the libel charge against the newly elected congressman.
"We think this is a tremendous victory," said Sue Himmelrich, one of several Los Angeles attorneys representing Cox in the suit. "Half of the lawsuit has been knocked out without the judge even having heard evidence, which is obviously unusual."
Neither Cox, at a conference in Washington, nor Erhard, in Ethiopia, was available for comment Tuesday. Himmelrich described Cox as "absolutely thrilled" when she told him about the ruling Monday night.
But aides to Erhard took some solace in Palk's refusal to dismiss the half of the lawsuit alleging that Cox slandered Erhard.
"From our standpoint, we're just glad that the judge ruled we have a viable claim" for the slander portion of the suit, said Sharon Spaulding, spokeswoman for Erhard & Associates.
Erhard is charging Cox with slander for allegedly putting out telephone calls to district voters on behalf of an unnamed candidate, asking them if they would vote for a candidate associated "with that cult est."
Palk, in allowing Erhard's claim to continue in the courts, said that the calls differed from the political mailers.
"The audience consisted of residents who received unsolicited telephone calls and who would not necessarily expect a political message in the guise of what could have been understood to be a poll," Palk said.
Buoyed by that decision, Erhard attorney William S. O'Hare said: "Up until now, we didn't know whether this case had any validity at all. It was up in the air. . . . This ruling is a mixed message, but at least we're still in court" on the slander claim.
In the initial slander and libel suit, Erhard had sought $5 million from Cox. O'Hare could not place a monetary value on the half of the suit that is still alive.
Himmelrich, attorney for Cox, said "we have no doubt we'll win" both the slander suit that now continues in Superior Court and any appeals made over the libel question. She assailed Erhard's complaint as "a nuisance suit."