Los Angeles — A Los Angeles County judge said Tuesday he would likely advance actor Leah Remini's defamation and harassment lawsuit against the Church of Scientology, albeit with some claims dismissed.
The 53-year-old Remini, who starred for nearly a decade on the TV show "The King of Queens," says she was forced into joining the Church of Scientology because of her mother's devotion at the age of eight. She remained a member for more than 35 years, spending, by her own estimates, over $5 million on various services and donations to the organization. When she did finally leave the church in 2013, she became one of its most famous and vocal critics, writing a memoir "Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology," and producing and starring in the docuseries "Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath."
In the face of such criticism, the church responded, as it often does, by going on the offensive, producing a slew of videos and articles attacking Remini, posting them on a dedicated website, and inspiring its followers (and, perhaps, bots) to promote them on social media.
Last year, Remini filed a lawsuit against the Church of Scientology and its leader David Miscavige, claiming defamation, harassment, stalking and tortious interference with a contractual relationship. Among the very many accusations in the complaint is that Remini has been labeled by the church as a "suppressive person," and is therefore considered "fair game."
"For the past 10 years, Ms. Remini has been stalked, surveilled, harassed, threatened, intimidated, and, moreover, has been the victim of intentional malicious and fraudulent rumors via hundreds of Scientology-controlled and coordinated social media accounts that exist solely to intimidate and spread misinformation," Remini says in the latest version of her complaint.
The church, in its motion to dismiss the lawsuit on anti-SLAPP grounds — a legal maneuver used to quickly throw out suits that are meant to discourage free speech or public participation — argued Remini's criticism of the church was nothing more than "hate speech," and that the church and its members have every right to fight back.
Remini's "attempt to tortify a public debate — that she initiated and has profited from — is why California enacted its anti-SLAPP statute," the church argued in their motion. Videos, articles, tweets condemning Remini — all were protected speech, the church argued. As for the "alleged surveillance," the church said this was all part of "a pre-litigation stance" in anticipation of a lawsuit filed by Remini, and was therefore also "protected conduct."
In his tentative ruling, LA County Superior Court Judge Randolph Hammock wrote that he was likely to dismiss most, but not all, of the defamation claims against the church and leave most of the harassment claims more or less in place.
"In my 15 years on the bench, this is probably the hardest I've ever worked on a particular motion," Hammock said, appearing to be enjoying himself as he presided over the three-hour hearing and painstakingly going over the 68-page complaint allegation by allegation.
Hammock concluded that many of the defamation claims occurred before Aug. 2, 2022, and were therefore time-barred by the law's one-year statute of limitations. Many of the other defamation claims, he said, were matters of opinion rather than fact. For example, after Remini had been cast to host a game show, the Church of Scientology started posting open letters condemning the decision, one of which read, in part, "What’s next? A game show 'hosted' by a KKK leader? Neo-Nazi Jeopardy?"
"None of these are actionable," Hammock explained. "They're not very nice things to say about someone. They usually demonstrate malice when you call someone names. We know she’s not a Nazi. You guys call her a Nazi. That’s fine. That’s your right under the First Amendment. I understand. She attacks you. You attack her."
Another social media campaign attacked Remini for her support of Paul Haggis, a writer/director who left the church in 2009, and who was found liable for rape at a civil trial in 2022. A social media campaign accused Remini of defending, loving and supporting "rapists."
Hammock compared the campaign to parody, writing in his tentative ruling, "No one viewing those statements could take them literally."
He did say he would likely allow some of the defamation claims to survive, particularly ones involving Remini's father. In her complaint, Remini says the church "used and manipulated Ms. Remini’s estranged and now deceased father, George Remini and his third wife, Dana, to make false statements about Ms. Remini, including that she is a liar, that she only wanted her name in the news, that she would not help to pay for his cancer treatments, that she turned her back on her half-sister when she was in the hospital, that she ransacked her dying grandmother’s apartment, and that she has no morals.”
The judge said that some of those statements could be proven or disproven, and that the church could have published them "with at least a reckless disregard of the facts."
As for the harassment claims, Hammock said he was unlikely to throw them out, writing, "Any attempt by defendants to attribute the surveillance with a good-faith belief in litigation is unsupported by the evidence, and contradicts common sense." He added: "The court sees no public interest in the surveillance of private citizens — even celebrities — under an unsupported suspicion that litigation may occur at some later time."
He said he was also likely to allow at least some of the claims that Scientology had interfered with Remini's business relationships, with the broadcast and podcast companies iHeartRadio and AudioBoom, writing that while the church is "entitled to exercise their free speech rights to demand a broadcaster remove offensive content... what the church cannot do is send agents to harass the podcast’s producers and staff, to the point that they feared for their safety."
Remini's lawsuit had also asked for a declaration that among other things, "upon departure from Scientology, an individual should not be stalked, harassed, targeted, or made to fear for their life or livelihood." Hammock was fairly dismissive of this final request.
"I don’t get it," he said. "You want me to declare Scientology evil. And I’m not going to do that."
Although the judge gave little indication that he would budge from his tentative ruling, the ruling still isn't quite final — in fact, the hearing itself isn't even over. The last dribs and drabs of oral argument will be heard Friday, when the court is scheduled to also hear arguments on Remini's motion for a preliminary injunction to bar the Church from openly criticizing or inspiring boycotts against Remini.
Hammock couldn't resist offering a preview of Friday's hearing, saying, "My tentative is to not issue a preliminary injunction."
He told Remini's lawyer: "Show me the last time they did anything nasty to your client that it needs to be enjoined... If I’m convinced there's an ongoing real pattern of harassment that’s still going on to this day, then I’ll reconsider."