When a reporter is sued or threatened by a lawsuit, make no mistake that that entire process can be detrimental in ongoing and future coverage—the kind of reporting we want from our newspapers. Locally, fellow media outlets don't do a good job of covering each other's lawsuits and often the home office just wants to keep a low profile until the lawsuit works its way through the system and goes away. Yep, because often they do go away—usually and eventually dismissed in court. I'd love a different media community in Tucson that stands by each other, but that's a different Editor's Note. Let's stick to lawsuits and let's talk about the importance of anti-SLAPP legislation. SLAPP stands for strategic lawsuit against public participation. These are the kinds of lawsuits meant to intimidate, censor and silence critics.
Anti-SLAPP legislation would allow reporters, their editors and publishers to continue to do the work the community benefits from. Rather than worrying about getting sued, or that letter with the attorney letterhead meant to scare an editor into thinking the worse or moving forward with a lawsuit—perhaps they would think twice.
In Arizona, we have an anti-SLAPP statute, which allows someone sued to file a motion to dismiss within 90 days after being served. Unfortunately this process isn't exactly speedy, and the stress of sluggish litigation can just add to the worry in a newsroom.
But in a recent Association of Alternative Newsmedia editorial on anti-SLAPP, I was reminded why this statute is important and why these kinds of lawsuits or threats are so damaging to what we hold dear.
One example given was a lawsuit filed against the alternative newsweekly Washington City Paper filed by the owner of the Washington, D.C. NFL team. A letter sent to the paper is indeed a great example of what SLAPP's intend to do: "Mr. Snyder has more than sufficient means to protect his reputation and defend himself and his wife against your paper's concerted attempt at character assassination. We presume that defending such litigation would not be a rational strategy for an investment fund such as yours. Indeed, the cost of the litigation would presumably quickly outstrip the asset value of the Washington City Paper."
Evidently only 30 states have anti-SLAPP laws, which is one reason AAN is getting behind a federal anti-SLAPP law, "Speak Free Act." The "bill would create an Anti-SLAPP statute that applies in any state and when you're sued in federal court because on the basis of an oral or written statement or other expression that was made in connection with an official proceeding or about a matter of public concern (defined as anything relating to health or safety; environmental, economic, or community well-being; the government; a public official or public figure; or a good, product, or service in the marketplace). Once a defendant meets that threshold, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to prove that he or she is likely to prevail on the merits."
What to do next? Easy. Contact your representative and ask them to get behind this legislation.
— Mari Herreras, firstname.lastname@example.org