State Court Says Tennessee's Anti-SLAPP Law Is Constitutional, Shuts Down Litigant Involved In Baseless Libel Litigation

from the maybe-work-on-your-reputation-rather-than-suing-third-parties dept

Tennessee is filled with awful legislators. Fortunately, despite itself, the legislature passed an anti-SLAPP law that appears to finally be putting an end to ridiculous libel lawsuits in the state. Prior to this, residents and libel tourists were abusing the law to do things like silence legitimate criticism and — believe it or not — sue a journalist for things said by someone he interviewed.

While the state legislature continues pissing tax dollars away asking the federal government to institute criminal penalties for flag burning and requesting state colleges forbid student-athletes from expressing anything other than reverence for the flag, state courts are quietly ensuring their better legislative efforts remain viable.

A short ruling [PDF] issued by a Tennessee circuit court says the state’s anti-SLAPP law is not only constitutional, but serves a valuable purpose. (via Courthouse News)

The plaintiff — Tiny House Chattanooga — sued Sinclair Broadcasting after news coverage of the fallout from a reality program episode involving the tiny house manufacturer resulted in some acrimonious behavior by both parties: Mike Bedsole of Tiny House and the nominal recipients of his tiny house, Rebecah and Ben Richards. The couple was apparently promised a house — and some TV coverage — but received neither.

They went to court and because the title is in Bedsole’s name, the judge considered the couple tenants and evicted them.

“Based on the fact that the builder has the title in his name he had to rule in position to the builder and he gave us 10 days to vacate the property. And during those 10 days the builder took the house off the property,” he said.

The couple said they have repeatedly written to Bedsole asking where their home is, but have not received a response from him.

Bedsole sued Sinclair for KABC’s coverage. KABC filed an anti-SLAPP motion asking for the defamation lawsuit to be dismissed. Bedsole then filed this cross motion, asking the court to examine the constitutionality of the state’s anti-SLAPP law.

The anti-SLAPP law wins. Bedsole loses.

The TPPA, at least in the eyes of this court, is clearly predicated upon public policy concerns. “The purpose of this chapter is to encourage and safeguard the constitutional rights of persons to petition, to speak freely, to associate freely, and to participate in government to the fullest extent permitted by law…” T.C.A. 20-17-102. There can be no serious question that the intent of the legislature in passing this statute was to effect a more beneficial public policy.

To better benefit the public, the anti-SLAPP law allows for fee-shifting, placing the burden back on the party engaging in litigation solely for the purpose of silencing criticism. This is integral and constitutional, says the court.

This additional remedy is significant. […] [A] greater burden has been placed upon the plaintiff than the mere requirements of Rules 8 and 12 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure.

However, that’s not the only outcome available. Like any other litigation, the decision to shift fees still lies with the court. The new law simply provides another outlet for it to use should it decide the litigation has been pursued in bad faith.

The provisions of the TPPA do not mandate any particular result but leave the ultimate decision to within the discretion of the trial court. None of these provisions remove from the trial court the authority to interpret and apply the applicable law.

Since there’s no removal of power, the law is constitutional. The challenge fails and Bedsole and his company will no longer be able to sue journalists for reporting on a housing dispute, no matter how unfavorable the coverage is to Bedsole. This ruling solidifies the state’s anti-SLAPP law, making it more resilient against future challenges of its constitutionality. Bad faith litigants should be further deterred from filing bogus libel lawsuits and/or claiming the law bypasses the Constitution at the state level.

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Companies: sinclair broadcasting, tiny house chattanooga

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Comments on “State Court Says Tennessee's Anti-SLAPP Law Is Constitutional, Shuts Down Litigant Involved In Baseless Libel Litigation”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Well, yeah...

There are already narrow limits on speech in the forms of defamation and threats of imminent violence, the idea that a law that acts to prevent someone from weaponizing the courts to shut people up would or could be unconstitutional is kinda absurd as it very much serves the public interest to dissuade and/or punish those that abuse the system like that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It is a bit backward, yeah. I don’t even now recall if Rayburn was even interviewed in the article in which the reporter’s opinion inspired Loftis (and his legal counsel) to file suit on Rayburn.

There are actually several articles on techdirt on the same subject, if anyone is interested in the longitudinal story.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Huh??

KABC carried a story on their website.
It is possible that they did a story that was then shared across the ABC broadcast family that Sinclair owns a bunch of.
Those media packets you sometimes see with a story about a bear doing something cute etc etc that are from elsewhere in the country.
Because the snippet was aired on Sinclair stations dude said cha-ching & went for the deepest pockets b/c they dared to report on a reality tv story to flaming shitshow.

I have 90% faith in this explanation.

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