Bill to counter lawsuits vs. journalists introduced

Friday, August 17, 2012

A bill introduced Aug. 2 in the U.S. Senate would enable news media to counter SLAPP suits filed to suppress their reporting.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R–Ariz., introduced the Free Press Act of 2012 (S.B. 3493), a measure designed to protect the First Amendment rights of journalists and Internet service providers by giving them a mechanism to combat “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation,” or SLAPPs.

Under the measure, the media could file a motion to dismiss a lawsuit that “arises in whole or in part” from reporting “on a matter of public concern or that relates to a public official or figure.”

“The Free Press Act of 2012 responds to a number of recent incidents in which defamation lawsuits have been used to try to squelch criticism of particular groups and individuals,” Kyl said.

The bill would not apply to lawsuits filed by the federal government or state attorneys general. It also would not apply to claims arising out of commercial speech, defined as “a statement offering or promoting the sale of goods or services of the person making the statement.”

The measure was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Gregg Leslie, legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said he supported the measure.

“We have long been a supporter of this effort to enact a federal anti-SLAPP law. Reporters — and particularly the newer breed of journalists who are reporting on their own blog or web site and do not have the backing of big publishing or broadcasting companies — are constantly the target of lawsuits that really are designed to do nothing more than shut them up,” he said.

In its publication “SLAPP Stick: Fighting frivolous lawsuits against journalists,” RCFP notes that Baltimore journalist Adam Meister was sued for $21 million by a city councilwoman who claimed defamation and emotional distress because Meister reported that she lived outside the city while representing a district within it, in violation of law. She eventually dropped the lawsuit over the post on examiner.com, but Meister had to pay court costs.

“A single frivolous lawsuit can cost tens of thousands of dollars just to get dismissed,” Leslie said, “and if it goes to trial instead, the costs are overwhelming. Anti-SLAPP laws have proven their effectiveness at the state level repeatedly, and a federal law would help out even more,” he said.

Laura Handman, a D.C.-based attorney at the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine who advised Kyl’s staff on the measure, said: “Many states now have anti-SLAPPs acts and they have had extremely beneficial effects on protecting the exercise of speech when it involves matters of public interest.”

“Anti-SLAPP statutes allow the media to weed out frivolous lawsuits,” Handman told the First Amendment Center Online. “In my practice, I have seen the benefit of these measures, particularly for the news media in reporting on matters of important public interest. It is important to have this type of protection at the federal level.”

According to the Citizen Media Law Project, 27 states, the District of Columbia and a U.S. territory have enacted anti-SLAPP laws.

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