Full Circle co-founder Andrew Keegan files $33-million defamation lawsuits over misleading headlines about Venice kombucha bust

By Joe Piasecki

Andrew Keegan helped remove litter from Venice Beach during a Full Circle-sponsored beach cleanup in August

Andrew Keegan helped remove litter from Venice Beach during a Full Circle-sponsored beach cleanup in August

When The Argonaut reported in May that state Alcoholic Beverage Control agents had seized containers of kombucha from actor Andrew Keegan’s Full Circle spiritual center on Rose Avenue, news agencies — and what passes for them these days — saw an only in L.A. story that was too good to pass up.

Soon headlines throughout the web blared that Keegan had been “arrested for selling illegal kombucha at a New Age temple,” in the words of Examiner.com, and “busted for peddling illegal kombucha,” as Newsmax.com put it.

The trouble is that Keegan wasn’t arrested. The contraband kombucha was being served during a fundraiser for the Sea Shepherd Foundation held at the Full Circle space, and Keegan says he wasn’t even present during that event.

Now Keegan is suing Examiner.com parent company Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) and Newsmax Media Inc. for $33 million, alleging defamation and libel for damage to his reputation.

“These false stories were land mines on my career path and the momentum that I’d worked so hard to achieve at Full Circle,” Keegan said of his lawsuit. “Facts matter. Truth is essential. It is my hope that these lawsuits will set a new standard for reporting on public figures. Just because an individual has chosen to be in the public eye doesn’t give the media the right to recklessly publish false stories and bully that individual for profit in front of millions of people.”

An AEG spokesman did not return calls for comment, but it appears that Examiner.com has since taken down the story.

Newsmax COO Andrew Brown told The Argonaut earlier this month that company attorneys were evaluating Keegan’s lawsuit. Since then Newsmax.com has changed the headline to read: “Correction: Andrew Keegan’s Spiritual Center Cited, No Arrests Made.”

Both stories cited The Argonaut’s original May 13 report, which did not state that Keegan had been arrested.

The Full Circle organization itself is not a plaintiff in Keegan’s lawsuit, but Full Circle spokesman Jason Dilts said the group’s reputation took a big hit from those stories about co-founder Keegan.

“We had people who wanted to rent our space back away. Partnerships we were talking about did not come to fruition. Donors who did not follow through on making their donation,” Dilts said. “We spent three months repairing the damage from that bad press.”

Full Circle’s civic-minded activities include support for the Venice Art Crawl and various efforts to alleviate homelessness in Venice, including outreach to homeless LGBT youth.

Dilts also said that various filmmakers who had been considering Keegan for movie rolls stopped returning Keegan’s calls and emails after the kombucha headlines went live.

Attorney Kyle Scudiere, who represents Keegan in his defamation suit, said the financial benefits of outrageous and salacious headlines tend to encourage inaccurate online content.

“Some online news media companies have found the proverbial money tree, where user clicks turn instant profit and business models incentivize the publication of false reporting,” reads a statement by Scudiere. “What results insults the First Amendment and creates an open season on the reporting of public figures.”

USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism professor Jonathan Kotler, an expert in media law and the First Amendment, said Keegan’s case highlights the pitfalls of websites that are heavy on news aggregation and light on professional standards.

“The problem is you have so many people playing at being journalists who don’t have any training at all about the rules of the road and do things that people with training would not do. This results in really sloppy headline writing and stories that generate a lot of interest but just aren’t true,” said Kotler, former legal counsel to the California First Amendment Coalition and the L.A. chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

“This is not a problem about celebrities. This is a problem about would-be journalists,” Kotler said. “This hybrid animal that goes by the name ‘citizen journalist’ — if you have appendicitis, would you go to a citizen doctor?”