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It’s unusual for a company that owns a newspaper to warn a fellow publication to watch its back.

But that’s exactly what an attorney for Platinum Equity, owner of The San Diego Union-Tribune, told the San Diego Reader alternative weekly newspaper in a letter made public yesterday.

“You proceed at your peril,” wrote Los Angeles attorney Martin D. Singer in a 2,587-word letter posted by the Reader.

Singer warned the paper that it faces “substantial liability for claims including defamation and interference with prospective economic advantage” if it publishes false information about two lawsuits filed against Platinum Equity that were dismissed.

The letter goes on to accuse the Reader of having a “pre-conceived agenda to attack, disparage and defame my client” and suggests its previous coverage could support a lawsuit alleging “malice,” a crucial legal term in libel and defamation suits against the media.

The Reader published a story about the lawsuits anyway.

While the lawsuits were dismissed, they have come up during media coverage of Platinum Equity’s attempt to buy Delphi, the bankrupt auto parts company, for a reported $3.6 billion.

The L.A. Times reported last month about a mention of the lawsuits on business network CNBC:

[The network] aired a report Thursday night on a 2006 sexual harassment lawsuit and a 2007 wrongful termination suit filed against Platinum that included salacious allegations of inappropriate behavior by some of the firm’s male executives toward female subordinates. Both suits were later dismissed.

In a statement, Eva M. Kalawski, Platinum’s executive vice president and general counsel, described the lawsuits as “gratuitous” and called the allegations “unfounded.”

Delphi declined to comment on the suits other than to say the matters were “unrelated” to the company’s dealings with Platinum.

Under the headline “Who’s Harassing Who,” the Reader today published a story examining the suits.

A representative of Platinum Equity told the Reader that “successful companies often become targets for gratuitous lawsuits filled with unfounded allegations. Platinum has not been immune. Fortunately, we have only had to deal with a handful of these in our 14 years of operation.”

A second Reader story details the threat letter, which attorney Singer demanded be kept confidential. The Reader declined to do so.

Singer writes:

In the event that you proceed to recklessly and maliciously publish a Story which falsely states, either directly or by implication, that my client engaged in wrongdoing as alleged in those lawsuits or otherwise, you will be exposed to substantial claims for defamation, giving rise to potentially astronomical damages.

The letter also accuses the Reader, which has run stories about Platinum Equity, of having a “pre-conceived agenda to attack, disparage and defame my client.”

Singer adds that “we are confident that the Reader’s pattern of publishing negative stories about my client, culminating in the upcoming Story, would establish the Reader’s use of these journalistic devices, and would supply ample evidence of malice.”

Under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment, “public figures” cannot be successfully sued for libel or defamation unless a plaintiff can prove that statements were made with malice.

But “malice” doesn’t mean with hateful motives. The Electronic Freedom Foundation says the media can be sued over material “that you published with either knowledge of falsity or in reckless disregard for the truth. This is a difficult standard for a plaintiff to meet.”

Corporations can be considered public figures, the foundation says, but not in all cases.

— RANDY DOTINGA

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