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Orange County

Tavern Foe Wins Free-Speech Appeal

August 13, 2004|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

An Orange County Superior Court judge erred in prohibiting a Balboa Island woman from making certain defamatory statements about a neighborhood restaurant-bar she said was a nuisance, an appellate court has ruled.

"I learned something: that there still is justice in America," said a joyful Anne Lemen, who has been fighting the seven-decade-old Balboa Island Village Inn, across an alley from her home.

Lemen, a registered nurse, crusaded in her neighborhood against what she termed the restaurant-bar's excessive noise and often ill-mannered customers, making her "the Erin Brockovich of Balboa" among some residents, a moniker she embraced.

She softened her campaign after the tavern won an injunction against her in 2002, saying she hurt business by taking flash photographs of customers through the windows and videotaping customers as they walked to their cars.

During a hearing, witnesses said Lemen questioned the workers' immigration status and accused some of being prostitutes. Lemen denied the allegations.

Superior Court Judge Gerald G. Johnston ruled in favor of the establishment, prohibiting Lemen from contacting the restaurant's employees, making any of a list of defamatory statements about it, and photographing within 25 feet of the business.

Lemen appealed the ruling, arguing that the prior restraint on her speech was unconstitutional on 1st Amendment grounds.

In a ruling filed Wednesday, the state's 4th District Court of Appeals overruled Johnston's order barring Lemen from defaming the tavern.

Appellate Justice Richard D. Fybel said prohibiting Lemen from making defamatory statements "is far broader than necessary to protect Village Inn patrons from being annoyed by Lemen."

The tavern owners haven't decided whether to appeal, a tavern attorney said.

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