The Problem With HR 4364, The Proposed Federal Anti-SLAPP Law
Around half the States have anti-SLAPP (i.e., Anti-"Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation") statutes which make it easier to dismiss suits allegedly filed to chill freedom of speech. If the lawsuit arises from the Defendants’ exercise of their rights to free speech — which in the post-Citizens United era means virtually every time a corporation advances an agenda — then the Defendant can file, at the very beginning of the lawsuit, a "special motion" that requires the Plaintiff show concrete evidence proving each element of their claims.
The laws make sense, in theory. “The hallmark of a SLAPP suit is that it lacks merit, and is brought with the goals of obtaining an economic advantage over a citizen party by increasing the cost of litigation to the point that the citizen party’s case will be weakened or abandoned, and of deterring future litigation.” United States ex rel. Newsham v. Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., 190 F.3d 963, 972-73 (9th Cir.1999). The purpose of anti-SLAPP laws is to ensure the prompt dismissal of “legally meritless suits filed in order to obtain a political or economic advantage over the defendant, not to vindicate a legally cognizable right of the plaintiff.” Condit v. Nat’l Enquirer, Inc., 248 F. Supp. 2d 945, 952 (E.D. Cal. 2002)(internal quotation omitted). “The paradigm SLAPP suit is an action filed by a land developer against environmental activists or objecting neighbors of the proposed development.” Id.
All well and good. Indeed, anti-SLAPP Acts are sometimes used to dismiss bogus suits in which one side really was trying "to obtain a political or economic advantage" over someone with inadequate resources to defend themselves. See Melius v. Keiffer, 980 So. 2d 167, 170 (La. Ct. App. 2008)(granting motion to strike complaint brought by owners of a bar against area resident who had opposed an expansion of the bar); Lamz v. Wells, 938 So. 2d 792, 794 (La. Ct. App. 2006)(dismissing case filed one week before election by one judicial candidate against another); Darden v. Smith, 879 So. 2d 390, 393 (La. Ct. App. 2004)(dismissing case filed by public official against individual who filed a complaint with the Louisiana Board of Ethics).
Goldman gives his own example where an anti-SLAPP motion allowed a party with limited legal resources to avoid the cost and burden of full-fledged litigation:
All too often, vendors use actual or threatened litigation to take down content that criticizes their offerings. The proposed federal anti-SLAPP law applies to those lawsuits. Thus, if enacted, the federal anti-SLAPP law will help consumers share their true feeling about marketplace offerings with less fear of meritless lawsuits from vendors who would rather fight in court than compete.
BoingBoing’s recent resolution of a lawsuit brought by MagicJack nicely illustrates the virtues of anti-SLAPP laws. BoingBoing blogged some criticisms of MagicJack’s offerings, and MagicJack unwisely responded to that post with a lawsuit. Fortunately for BoingBoing, MagicJack sued it in California, which has a robust anti-SLAPP law. As a result, BoingBoing was able to end the lawsuit early (BoingBoing won its anti-SLAPP motion less than 3 months from complaint filing) and get the court to order MagicJack to pay its attorneys’ fees of over $50k.
But it’s not always David using anti-SLAPP laws against Goliath; it’s often the other way around.
Consider the BoingBoing case. Let’s assume that, instead of suing BoingBoing, MagicJack retaliated by secretly hiring a spam company to inundate BoingBoing and other widely-read blogs with hostile comments questioning BoingBoing’s motives and favorably referring to MagicJack.
BoingBoing, having no other options, sues MagicJack.
Would those allegations show MagicJack’s "acts" were "in furtherance of the right of free speech?" Sure; MagicJack has just as much a right as BoingBoing to talk about other companies. So the anti-SLAPP Act would be available.*
At the beginning of the case, then, BoingBoing would be required to prove — prior to conducting any discovery, since HR 4364 automatically stays all discovery — that MagicJack was behind the posts, that the posts were false, that the posts were capable of a defamatory meaning, and that MagicJack was at "fault" in publishing the comments (defined in many states as "acting with malice or reckless intent").
How could BoingBoing prove all that immediately after filing suit? Most of that information would be in MagicJack’s possession.
Odds are, BoingBoing wouldn’t be able to do it. Their case would be dismissed, and MagicJack could continue to harass BoingBoing at will.
The law of unintended consequences, as they say.
Put simply, the problem with HR 4364 is that it’s an extraordinarily powerful device — one that substantially increases the costs of bringing meritorious cases and will undoubtedly result in the inadvertent dismissal of many meritorious cases — with few limitations on its use.
Often the only means that "David" has to challenge "Goliath" is through a lawsuit, like when ordinary individuals are powerless to repair the damage caused by sloppy or sensationalized journalism. Yet, if Goliath wants to use the Act to dismiss David’s lawsuit, he can and will.
- – -
* Don’t think that the "commercial speech" clause in HR 4364 would help remove the case from the Anti-SLAPP law. As a defendant in one of my cases argued, and as MagicJack would argue:
There is no authority for [plaintiff's] allegation at paragraph 81 of his complaint that “The defendants’ motives in writing and propagating the false allegations [...] are economic; therefore, this commercial speech does not qualify for the heightened protections of the First Amendment.” See Compl. ¶ 81. To the contrary, the Supreme Court has squarely rejected it. See Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products Corp., 463 U.S. 60, 67 (1983) (“an economic motivation … would clearly be insufficient by itself to turn the materials [in question] into commercial speech”); Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495, 501-02 (1952) (“That books, newspapers, and magazines are published and sold for profit does not prevent them from being a form of expression whose liberty is safeguarded by the First Amendment.”); see also New Kids on the Block v. News America Publishing, Inc., 745 F.Supp. 1540, 1544 (C.D.Cal. 1990) (“A profit motive … is irrelevant to the inquiry of whether the content of … speech … is … commercial [or otherwise]”). In sum, there is no support for [plaintiff's] suggestion that the article is not entitled the fullest protections afforded by the First Amendment.
I don’t agree with the above analysis, but that’s just my opinion. A judge could just as easily agree with every word.