Rabbi and Orthodox School Lose Libel Lawsuit in California

Much in the Jewish faith was passed down by an oral tradition. However, this rabbinical tradition hit legal technicalities in a defamation suit filed by Rabbi Pinchas Lipner and the Hebrew Academy of San Francisco against San Francisco philanthropist Richard Goldman, the Jewish Community Federation and the University of California Regents. The California Supreme Court says that it is one defamation claim that will have to be heard by the court of public opinion rather than a court of law. Lipner missed a one-year statute of limitation and the Supreme Court refused to extend that period.

At issue is an oral history interview with Goldman from 1992 as part of a research program of the Bancroft Library of University of California, Berkeley. During the interview, Goldman says that Lipner was not “an honorable man” and “has done little for the community” and that the federation’s support for the school was a financial drain. On its face, such statements are not clearly defamatory since they seem largely opinion about a public figure.

Yet, the merits proved immaterial since the Court found that time had run out years before the filing. Lipner and the academy insist that the one-year period is unreasonable because they did not find out about the 1993 transcript until 2001. The Court found that, while limited in distribution, this transcript was “accessible to the public.” The court majority said that even though the transcript had limited circulation, it was “accessible to the public” when it was placed in the library in 1993. It is an important ruling for the state since the records show that the transcript was published by the library in 1993 and over the next several years about 10 copies were acquired by various libraries and one individual. That is not much in terms of notice in most cases, but it was enough to bar a legal action.

For the opinion, click here

2 thoughts on “Rabbi and Orthodox School Lose Libel Lawsuit in California”

  1. The problem is that, putting aside the statute of limitations, courts hate to get into such spates which are be viewed as opinion. For example, the tradition of rising is clearly a sign of respect, but the defendant is allowed to interpret it in a more dark or sinister meaning.

  2. Very interesting case, Professor. Reading Goldman’s remarks, it seems as if he has something personally against this educator (and perhaps school). He uses hearsay and ad hominem attack methods, as well as mistaking a nice jewish custom of showing respect to a senior (any senior) by rising as they enter a room as some sort of negative totalitarian school policy. Goldman comes off as a kind of petulant teenager. I wonder who really initiated this lawsuit, the school or the rabbi?

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