59 Law Professors Urge Congress To Pass Bill Protecting Free Speech From Frivolous Lawsuits

Imagine you run a local news site and you’re working on a great new story about the town’s largest employer that uncovers some very bad behavior. You’re all set to publish, then you receive notice that this company has filed a lawsuit against you for something frivolous, like copyright or trademark infringement, that could never be proven at trial — but which could bankrupt you and your small-time operation long before it ever gets to that point. It’s a practice known as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) and it’s a not-uncommon way for deep-pocketed companies and individuals to try to intimidate potential whistleblowers and others into remaining quiet.

Some states, like California, have anti-SLAPP statutes that allow defendants in these cases to challenge the validity of the accusation in an expedited manner, rather than allowing the lawsuit to drag on unnecessarily.

Earlier this year, Congressman Blake Farenthold of Texas, along with Rep. Anna Eshoo from California, introduced federal legislation — the SPEAK FREE Act (or the Securing Participation, Engagement, and Knowledge Freedom by Reducing Egregious Efforts Act, if you’re so inclined) — which would amend the federal judicial code to allow a defendant to file a special motion to dismiss SLAPP claims.

The legislation has received bipartisan support and currently has more than two dozen co-sponsors, but has been lingering in the House Judiciary Committee since being introduced in May.

In the hopes of moving things along, a group of 59 law professors from — representing schools in 25 states and the District of Columbia — have signed a letter [PDF] sent to the chairs and ranking members of the Judiciary Committee and its subcommittee on Constitution and Civil Justice, urging them to approve the SPEAK FREE Act.

“As professors, we routinely take public positions on controversial high-profile matters,” reads the letter. “As a result, we face legal threats — and, sometimes, meritless lawsuits — intended to keep us from contributing to the public discourse.”

The legal scholars acknowledge that they are often in the fortunate position of having the “legal and financial resources of our institution to help defend our speech,” but note that most people facing SLAPP claims do not.

“Technology has enabled anyone to become an online journalist, editor, town crier, or anonymous pamphleteer,” explain the professors, pointing to online review sites, which have often been the target of frivolous or misguided legal actions by companies looking to quiet critics merely for speaking up.

“But when those speakers face legal challenges to exercising their free speech rights, they face a serious dilemma,” continues the letter, “they can stand by their speech and risk financially ruinous legal defense costs, or they can try to avoid litigation at any cost by shutting up, even when the demands are clearly retaliatory or improper attempts by a plaintiff to silence critics and intimidate other Internet users from speaking up.”

Because nearly half the states have no anti-SLAPP statutes — and not all anti-SLAPP laws are as equally protective — the professors say this results in “forum shopping” by plaintiffs, meaning they pick and choose in which states they file their SLAPP claims. Plaintiffs can also try to get around state-level anti-SLAPP rules by filing in federal court.

“By closing these loopholes, the SPEAK FREE Act of 2015 would protect the speech of all Americans in all courts,” write the professors.

Even in states where anti-SLAPP laws exist, companies still file meritless complaints to discourage whistleblowers. Earlier this year, we told you about a California nursing home that sued a resident’s daughter for defamation simply because she copied her outside attorney on a four-sentence e-mail. Because of the state’s anti-SLAPP statute, the daughter was able to get the defamation complaint dismissed.

She is now suing both the home and the law firm that filed the original complaint, alleging that the lawyers knew the defamation case was frivolous and was only intended to punish her and her mother for alerting state authorities to conditions at the nursing home.

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