Free speech from the outside

A Japanese visitor renews my appreciation for California’s progressive laws

I had an interesting visitor last weekend, someone who gave me renewed appreciation for America’s free-speech laws.

Hiro Ugaya has been a reporter for more than 20 years, working for major Japanese newspapers and newsweeklies, including a stint as the New York City-based correspondent for Asahi, which is sometimes called The New York Times of Japan.

He was in the North State on an unlikely mission: researching SLAPPs, or “strategic lawsuits against public participation.” On Saturday (Feb. 13), he interviewed Rich Meyers, the leader of the Dry Creek Coalition, the group that sued the Butte County Board of Supervisors—successfully—over its approval of the New Era Mine and got “SLAPPed” with a million-dollar lawsuit by the mine’s operators, North Continent Land & Timber.

It was an absurd suit with no other purpose than to intimidate Meyers and the coalition. It scared them, but it didn’t work; the coalition hired the best anti-SLAPP attorney in California and quickly got the case dismissed and, as the law requires, awarded attorney fees.

On Sunday, Ugaya came to my house to interview me, as a journalist who had covered the lawsuit and the events surrounding it. It was a fun visit, not only because he’s a charming man, but also because of the camaraderie journalists share. There’s never a lack of things to talk about.

We sat for nearly four hours at my kitchen table. At times my wife, Denise, joined us; she found Ugaya as delightful as I did, and we both peppered him with questions about himself and life in Japan.

His interest in SLAPPs was personal: Several years ago a music-industry conglomerate had slapped him with a baseless defamation lawsuit that had taken 33 months to resolve—in his favor, fortunately—and cost him $100,000 in legal fees. Most infuriating, it was not because of something he’d written, but something he’d said to another reporter who’d interviewed him for a story. Neither the reporter nor his publication had been sued.

The case took over his life for more than two years and threatened to ruin his career. While fighting it, he learned of California’s landmark anti-SLAPP statute, first passed in 1992 and amended several times since to make it stronger. He realized that, if Japan had such a law in place to protect his right to free speech, he wouldn’t have been put through the wringer and “made to suffer,” as he put it.

He’s spending a month in this country, flying to Washington, D.C., Orlando, Denver and San Francisco to do research before returning to San Francisco, all of it on his own dime. He’ll get some articles out of it, maybe a book. Best of all would be to change the law in Japan, he said.

“I have realized there are many more things the Japanese people can learn from American people in terms of free speech,” he writes in an e-mail from Washington I received Tuesday. He says he’ll be back to continue researching SLAPP suits, free speech and free-press issues.

We’ll be delighted to see him again.

To see a photo of Hiro Ugaya, go to