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Solving SLAPP Slop
In a substantial minority of states, wealthy and powerful individuals can, without much consequence, bring defamation lawsuits against the press and concerned citizens to silence and intimidate them. These lawsuits, known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation” (“SLAPP”s), are brought not to compensate a wrongfully injured person, but rather to discourage the defendants from exercising their First Amendment rights. In other words, when well resourced individuals feel disrespected by public criticism, they sometimes sue the media or concerned citizens, forcing these speakers to defend themselves in exorbitantly expensive defamation actions. In states without anti-SLAPP statutes—statutes aimed at protecting speakers from these chilling lawsuits—these cases can take months, and sometimes years, to resolve. The result is that speakers—those targeted by the lawsuits and otherwise—will be less inclined to criticize the plaintiff in the future, lest they face a devastatingly burdensome and drawn-out (albeit not meritorious) defamation lawsuit.
Even in the thirty-two states that have passed anti-SLAPP statutes, the statutory regimes widely vary. For instance, anti-SLAPP statutes in some populous states like Florida and, until recently, New York are not particularly helpful to the media because they only apply in limited contexts, such as citizens being sued for their comments at public meetings. Other anti-SLAPP statutes, like Virginia’s, lack procedural mechanisms that would require a plaintiff whose lawsuit has been declared a SLAPP to pay the defendants’ legal fees. As a result of these and other differences in anti-SLAPP regimes, plaintiffs strategically forum shop when deciding where to bring their defamation lawsuits, choosing jurisdictions with less protections for defendants whenever possible. However, even where an action is brought in a jurisdiction that does provide strong anti-SLAPP protections, federal courts are split on whether anti-SLAPP statutes conflict with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Consequently, it is currently unclear whether such statutes can be applied in federal cases at all.
Because anti-SLAPP statues are needed to ensure that the public can exercise their First Amendment rights and freely exchange information of public interest, it is vital to fill the gaps that the current statutory regimes have created. In exploring the current legislative landscape, this Article will consider methods for protecting citizens’ First Amendment rights to speak on issues of public interest, such as urging state and federal governments to pass broad anti-SLAPP legislation. In so doing, this Article will suggest specific tools and language that should be incorporated into a federal anti-SLAPP law. Indeed, to date, no federal anti-SLAPP statute has ever been enacted. This Article seeks to change that by outlining provisions for a potential federal anti-SLAPP statute and exploring the benefits and value that enacting strong anti-SLAPP legislation on both the federal and state levels could have on protecting First Amendment rights.
Nicole J. Ligon *
* Visiting Professor of Law at Campbell University Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law.