Nextdoor Post Isn’t Protected by Anti-SLAPP Law–Jeppson v. Ley
Nextdoor is a social networking service for neighborhoods. This case involves an unspecified neighborhood, somewhere on the west side of the LA basin, with 951 neighbors. The underlying dispute involves a triad of neighbors, Jeppson, the Leys, and Cates. Ley’s dog killed Jeppson’s cat, which led to a settlement agreement with a small payment and a non-disparagement agreement. Meanwhile, Jeppson wanted Cates’ tree trimmed to improve his ocean view, and their interactions led Cates to obtain a restraining order on Jeppson that included a requirement that Jeppson dispose of some guns. Mr. Ley then posted the following on the Nextdoor neighborhood:
Since this is a neighborhood blog, I feel it is important to provide information about the case against Michael Jeppson for trespassing and vandalism on his neighbor’s property. Michael Jeppson of Raymond James Financial Corporation and Jeppson Wealth Management could face jail time for these charges. Most importantly, a restraining order was issued on 6/27/2017, and the courts forced Michael Jeppson to relinquish his gun arsenal due to the danger he poses to his neighbors. If interested, you can review the court document at lacourts.org for a one dollar fee. The signs in Michael Jeppson’s yard pictured below warn the neighborhood that he intends to solve disputes with gun violence, and he has stated this intent in countless blog posts and neighborhood fliers. Beware! [“Ley’s post attached three photos of Jeppson’s yard signs, which forbade trespassing with images of guns and a bullet-riddled human silhouette.”]
Jeppson sued the Leys for breach of contract, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Leys sought to strike the lawsuit as a SLAPP. The trial court rejected the anti-SLAPP motion. The appellate court affirms.
California’s anti-SLAPP law applies to statements that address issues in the public interest, and the question is whether Ley’s post met that standard. The court says “We are fully aware of the plasticity of the abstract notion of the ‘public interest.'” The court concludes that the post isn’t on an issue of public interest because:
- Neither Ley nor Jepsson were in the public eye.
- The matter related just to the three families.
- “There is no issue of public interest when the speaker’s words are merely an effort to gather ammunition for another round in the speaker’s neighborhood wrangle.” Ley’s post was just an extension of their personal beef.
- The fact that the Nextdoor post might have reached 951 neighbors didn’t satisfy the public interest standard because there wasn’t any evidence that anyone actually read the message.
- The restraining order largely involved the tree trimming, not some greater neighborhood threat.
- Just being on the Internet doesn’t make it in the public interest.
In its conclusion, the court waxes philosophic: “Feuds can metastasize into the Hatfields and McCoys or the Montagues and Capulets. This tiff, though bitter, remained strictly local: a private affair and not a matter of ‘public interest.'” Thus, Jeppson’s lawsuit can proceed.
* * *
Unfortunately, the court doesn’t grapple with Nextdoor’s unique design in answering the “public interest” question. On the one hand, Nextdoor intentionally limits the exposure of posts. Posts are usually visible only in the author’s neighborhood and possibly adjacent neighborhoods, but not to the world at large. Thus, the posts are not “on the Internet” the same way that a blog post or tweet might be. They almost certainly reach a smaller audience than Facebook posts that are visible to friends-of-friends, which usually has a potential audience of about 40,000 readers compared to the less than 1,000 potential readers of Ley’s post. As a result, Nextdoor posts are less likely to relate to matters of “public interest” given their restricted audiences.
(Further reinforcing how Nextdoor posts may lack public interest, a popular Twitter feed facetiously called “Best of Nextdoor” mocks some of the pettiness on Nextdoor).
On the other hand, even if Ley’s post wasn’t a matter of public interest for the greater Los Angeles community, it absolutely could have been an important topic for the community of 951 neighbors. For example, in downtown Mountain View, it became huge local news that a single homeowner wanted to cut down about 6 redwood trees–there were campaigns, city council hearings, and plenty of chatter on and off Nextdoor. So for the specific community around Jeppson and Ley, the concerns expressed in Ley’s post might actually have caused quite a stir. In particular, some neighbors may have been concerned about gun safety, especially given Jeppson’s yard signs, and a restraining order among neighbors can fundamentally reshape small communities.
I recognize that my approach–to focus on what impacts small neighborhoods–is an expansive interpretation of the term “public interest.” Yet, as the maxim goes, all politics are local, so a post on Nextdoor can be just as much of a public interest as issues covered by more traditional mainstream media.
Case citation: Jeppson v. Ley, 2020 WL 486970 (Cal. App. Ct. Jan. 30, 2020)