[March 21, 2020] Sabbatical update: For obvious reasons, I am home, and not in Africa. Thanks to my wife who booked my return journey from Windhoek to Boston. Stay tuned for a return to normalcy. Meanwhile, #QuarantineLife.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Anti-SLAPP is not all it's cracked up to be

John Oliver this week on Last Week revisited the defamation lawsuit he drew against HBO from Bob Murray and Murray Energy.  The piece brings viewers up to speed on the feud.


Murray just dropped the suit, which was on appeal of dismissal to the West Virginia Supreme Court.  That led Oliver to do this effective segment on the problem of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).  Oliver called on the 20 states without anti-SLAPP statutes to adopt them, lest nationwide speakers remain subject to lawsuit in lowest-common-denominator, plaintiff-friendly locales.

I'm a big John Oliver fan—next-level, best standup I've ever seen, not to mention having redefined social commentary through comedy—and a free speech and journalism advocate.  That said, I am on record in opposition to anti-SLAPP laws, and I remain so.  The laws are an ill fit to resolve the underlying problem of excessive transaction costs in litigation and work an unfairness against legitimate causes of action.  Our First Amendment law radically weights defamation tort law against plaintiffs like nowhere else in the world, admittedly prophylactically dismissing claims by genuinely injured plaintiffs.  Defendants don't need another weapon in their arsenal.

Oliver is right that there are plenty of cases in which litigation is abused in an effort to suppress free speech.  But anti-SLAPP laws sweep within their ambit nearly every defamation and privacy case.  Defamation plaintiffs who have been genuinely injured and have no SLAPP motivation whatsoever also must respond to anti-SLAPP motions and are likely to suffer dismissal and pain of attorneys' fees—not because their suits lack merits, but because they lack access to discovery to get their hands on real, existing evidence of malice, discovery that our civil litigation system routinely affords to tort plaintiffs in the interests of justice.

The essential concept of anti-SLAPP law is said to have originated in Colorado as a means to protect environmentalists from retaliatory litigation by developers.  If you want to see evidence of my doubts about the efficacy of anti-SLAPP legislation, look no farther than a decision by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts just today, in which, literally, a property developer is the anti-SLAPP claimant in an epic litigation that has generated enormous transaction costs over anti-SLAPP procedure without ever reaching the merits of the case.

Anti-SLAPP laws look good on paper.  But they indiscriminately undermine tort law.  The effect of denying compensation to genuinely injured plaintiffs will be the effect of a failed tort system: unfairness, increased abuse by bad actors, and, ultimately, injured persons taking the law into their own hands.  Media advocates wonder why Generation Z, et seq., are hostile toward free speech.  Be careful what you wish for.

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