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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Anti-SLAPP helps free speech vanquish another foe! But is that always how it works?



The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has rejected a defamation claim connected with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on anti-SLAPP grounds.  The case is Cardno ChemRisk v. Foytlin, No. SJC-12082 (Feb. 14, 2017).

Environmentalists Cherri Foytlin and Karen Savage authored an op-ed for a Huffington Post blog in which they accused scientific consulting firm Cardno ChemRisk, LLC, of “a long, and on at least one occasion fraudulent, history of defending big polluters using questionable ethics to help their clients avoid legal responsibility for their actions.”  With respect to “fraud[],” the writers had alleged that ChemRisk accepted payment “to discredit research” that would have been probative of liability in the pollution case that became the basis of the movie, Erin Brockovich. 

“Anti-SLAPP” motions, allowed in 28 states and D.C. according to the Digital Media Law Project, are pretrial, usually dispositive motions that allow defendants to have the court take an early look at the merits of a tort lawsuit, with an eye to dismissal.  A “SLAPP” is a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” and refers to a lawsuit, often but not necessarily defamation, that is brought more for the purpose of miring an opponent in the burdensome transaction of litigation than for the purpose of redressing wrongful injury.

A darling of the media defense bar, anti-SLAPP is heralded as a contemporary savior of the right to petition and protest.  Some—me included—are a good deal more skeptical, finding that anti-SLAPP is often just one more hammer in the well-heeled, corporate-defense-bar toolbox to pulverize a plaintiff who might have a legitimate grievance but needs discovery to prove it—and furthermore a disincentive to media defendants to mediate disputes or make reasonable settlement offers.  In fact, media defendant victorious on anti-SLAPP motions often are entitled to have their attorney fees paid by the plaintiff, a remarkable departure from “the American rule” norm in U.S. litigation.

The terms of anti-SLAPP statutes vary considerably with state law.  The Massachusetts anti-SLAPP law requires that the defendant have been exercising its “right to petition,” an allusion to the First Amendment.  But the scope of petitioning activity contemplated by the statute is much more permissive than the First Amendment doctrine.  The statute embraces “any statement reasonably likely to enlist public participation in an effort to effect” governmental “review of an issue.”

As the court described the Foytlin blog post, it was “part of the defendants’ ongoing efforts to influence governmental bodies by increasing the amount and tenor of coverage around the environmental consequences of the spill, and it closes with an implicit call for its readers to take action.”  In particular, ChemRisk complained on appeal that the bloggers were not advocating on their own behalf.  The SJC, per Justice Lenk, found the statute not so constrained.

This might have been the just outcome in this litigation.  I don’t pretend to know better.  The court wrote an excellent explication of the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute and how it works procedurally, as well as its policy purpose.  The court characterized the legislature’s purpose as “primarily to protect ‘citizens of modest means’ who speak out against larger, more powerful entities.”  According to a footnote, “Foytlin is a mother of six supporting herself with modest monthly stipends; she lives in Louisiana less than fifty miles from the affected portion of the Gulf Coast shore.”  I suppose ChemRisk is a brutal, evil company, like Spiga Biotech in Syfy TV’s Incorporated.  The opinion doesn’t say. 

I have no warm and fuzzy feelings for ChemRisk, nor for BP and its partners in oil drilling.  But before we sing another round of hymns in knee-jerk praise of anti-SLAPP legislation, let’s at least acknowledge that the statute nowhere turns on the relative social power of the parties, or on their wealth, or on their parental or corporate status.

Media Goliaths already have a thousand and one ways to win a defamation lawsuit, even upon publication of falsity and refusal to update, investigate, or correct.  Sometimes plaintiffs are just Davids whose lives have been up-ended by malicious allegations calculated to advance an agenda regardless of the collateral damage.  I know what I’m talking about.  Cutting off a plaintiff at the knees and chilling the right to petition of truly aggrieved individuals is hardly an effective response to the very real problem of litigation transaction costs.  Let’s not be too quick to congratulate ourselves on another win for free speech.

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