The other night you had the most horrible burger of your life. You got online and wrote a negative review. And now you’re being hit with a lawsuit by the restaurant. Or, maybe you own a business or provide a service and discover review sites are censoring the reviews (for better or worse) about you. Here is where you need to know about Anti-SLAPP laws.
Sued for Speaking Out?
If the term “SLAPP” (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) isn’t ringing a bell, maybe you remember Oprah’s big SLAPP case back in 1996. Winfrey hosted an episode entitled “Dangerous Food,” where she said she wouldn’t eat another hamburger due to mad cow disease. Oprah was then sued by Texas cattle ranchers, who alleged more than $12 million in damages. Oprah fought the SLAPP for six weeks in Texas — where there were no anti-SLAPP laws — before a jury finally found in her favor.
How SLAPPs Work
Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation pose a serious threat to free expression. Anti-SLAPP statutes aim to protect First Amendment rights to free speech; these statutes allow defendants to bring a special motion to strike a complaint that prevents their free speech. The motion must be filed early in the case (within 60 days after the summons and complaint are served). The types of free speech in question may include lawsuits alleging defamation, nuisance, or infliction of emotional distress. Anti-SLAPP laws do vary by state, so an attorney is essential in these cases; what’s alarming is that nearly half of U.S. states have no Anti-SLAPP laws.
What Is a SLAPPback?
Anti-SLAPP statutes protect free speech; SLAPPback statutes work to prevent abuse of anti-SLAPP statutes. Here’s a simple example of how this all works: Person “X” publicly calls person “Y” a liar; Y sues X for defamation; X believes he was exercising his protected free speech when he called Y a liar, so X brings a special motion to strike Y’s complaint under the Anti-SLAPP statute; Y, claiming the lawsuit was brought solely in the public’s interest, defends based on the SLAPPback statute.
Why You Should Care About Anti-SLAPP Laws
If you rely on reading consumer reviews before making decisions, you definitely don’t want others getting into a SLAPP suit for letting you know where to avoid doing business. Freedom of speech adds transparency and helps consumers and businesses make better, more informed decisions. SLAPP suits often aim to shut people up if they make unfavorable claims about a product or service which could directly affect everyday consumers who participate on sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, or Avvo. In other words, you should want anti-SLAPP laws in place so the truth won’t be hidden from you about a product or service.
Public Participation Project (PPP)
Many plaintiffs can avoid state anti-SLAPP laws by filing claims in federal court. While a bill — the Free Press Act of 2012 — was introduced in Congress last summer, it was not enacted. The bill was designed to protect free speech rights of journalists and internet service providers, and it was hoped to prevent SLAPPs.
The Public Participation Project is aiming to strengthen First Amendments rights through federal anti-SLAPP legislation. The PPP is taking contributions through March 24, 2013 to hire a full-time legislative director in Washington, D.C. to fight for federal anti-SLAPP legislation.