CITY HALL — Fairmont Miramar Hotel representatives stand by statements about the Huntley Hotel and its owner despite threats from the Huntley’s attorney, according to a letter from the Miramar’s lawyer.
The missive comes in response to a letter last week from Huntley attorney Rick Zbur, of Latham & Watkins, which gave Fairmont Miramar owners one week to remove a slam website against the Huntley and retract statements from two flyers released in June, which targeted the Huntley and its owner, Sohrab Sassounian.
If not, the law firm would take “appropriate steps,” Zbur wrote.
In a letter received Monday, Fairmont Miramar attorney Philip Recht rejected the idea that the Huntley or its representatives could prevail if they decided to bring the matter to court.
“In any case, should the Huntley choose to initiate litigation over this matter, Ocean Avenue would welcome the opportunity to take document discovery and depositions in order to fully shed light on all of the matters discussed above,” Recht wrote.
In a statement released Tuesday, Huntley Vice President Shiva Aghaipour accused Ocean Avenue LLC. of trying to squash “legitimate discussion and debate about its massive expansion project.”
“The Huntley is currently in the process of exploring a range of options to ensure that the Miramar is not able to prevent the community from fully participating in a real discussion about Santa Monica’s future, development issues and the tremendous impacts from skyscrapers along Ocean Avenue,” Aghaipour wrote.
The Recht letter is the latest shot in a now-public war between the two hotels over plans to transform the Fairmont Miramar into a five-star hotel that can compete with new ones coming online in Downtown Los Angeles and other destinations.
The two June flyers from Ocean Avenue LLC. represented the first time that the Fairmont Miramar had publicly attacked the Huntley Hotel or its owner, despite releases from Santa Monicans Against the Miramar Expansion, a group organized by Sue Burnside, a political consultant hired by the Huntley Hotel.
The Ocean Avenue LLC. flyers identify Sassounian as an outsider from Beverly Hills motivated by greed to oppose the redevelopment of the neighboring hotel. It includes a grainy photo of Sassounian, which Huntley representatives say is doctored and meant to “evoke the feeling of a most wanted list.”
The second flyer also asserts that Huntley representatives are fighting an affordable housing development planned for what is now a parking lot, saying that it will bring a bad element.
Zbur called the information “defamatory” and “damaging,” and asserted that Ocean Avenue LLC. would have to provide considerably more proof of its validity because, in his view, Sassounian was not a public figure when the flyers came out.
First Amendment case law classifies people differently based on how much of an interest the public has in them or their lives. A celebrity, for instance, qualifies as an “all-purpose” public figure. That means they have to provide a higher standard of proof than a private individual to show that a piece of information is untrue.
Santa Monica hotel owner he may be, but Sassounian doesn’t fit that bill said Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the college of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University.
“Sohrab Sassounian is no Justin Timberlake,” Paulson said.
Some people fall into an in-between category called a “limited purpose public figure,” which refers to a person or entity that can be considered a public figure in a very specific context, usually one in which they have thrust themselves into the limelight.
The Huntley Hotel holds that Sassounian is a private individual because he has not attended meetings about the Fairmont Miramar’s redevelopment plans or spoken against them in public meetings.
That may not be defense enough if attorneys for the other side make the argument that Sassounian has participated through his employees or other proxies, said Adrianos Facchetti, a Pasadena-based attorney that writes the California Defamation Law blog.
“It’s definitely debatable,” Facchetti said. “I don’t think anyone can say at this point that it’s clear cut.”
Paulson does not believe that the information on the website or in the flyers rises to the level of defamation, which must first be untrue and then be damaging to Sassounian’s reputation.
“This is a classic exchange of provocative speech in the marketplace of ideas,” Paulson said. “It’s really hard to find where this would lead to a lawsuit.”