from the that's-how-it-works dept
The Wrap, a Hollywood-focused online publication, has a somewhat bizarre article by First Amendment/entertainment lawyer Susan Seager. It's officially about California's anti-SLAPP law (which we've written plenty about) and how it's popped up in a bunch of cases in Hollywood over the past few years, protecting a number of people and companies from having to go through questionable lawsuits based on their speech. This is exactly what the law is supposed to do. But Seager, for some reason, seems to imply that the law should only be used for "small-town citizens" and shouldn't be used by larger players. The article goes through a number of example cases, and then notes:
The statute was not originally enacted to protect the entertainment industry. The California Legislature enacted the SLAPP statute in 1992 to protect mostly small-town citizens from expensive lawsuits brought by large developers and companies to chill the citizens’ protests and testimony against development in their neighborhoods.
The purpose of California's anti-SLAPP law (and many other state anti-SLAPP laws, not to mention the proposed federal anti-SLAPP law) is to get cases quickly tossed out of court when the cases pretty clearly are designed to stifle expression. And, yes, many early cases involved people protesting/speaking out against companies, but the principles of stopping speech-stifling go beyond that, and it's pretty clear that California (and other states) passed laws for this very reason. They're aware that being a defendant in a lawsuit -- even a highly questionable one -- can create massive chilling effects and can be a huge drain on time and resources. And thus, we've got Caliofrnia's anti-SLAPP law, designed to do two things: quickly get those cases dismissed before they get too onerous and to deter such lawsuits by including fee-shifting, making the plaintiff pay.
However, Seager seems surprised that California's anti-SLAPP law has been construed to apply to situations other than those "small-town citizens."
But in recent years the courts have interpreted the “public interest” requirement so broadly that it now applies to any lawsuit that targets speech about “any issue in which the public is interested,” according to a California appellate court.
“In other words,” the court said in Nygard v. Uusi-Kerttula, “the issue need not be ‘significant’ to be protected by the anti-SLAPP statute — it is enough that it is one in which the public takes an interest.”
These decisions mean that the SLAPP law covers pretty much anything created by Hollywood that is followed by a large number of people, whether in tabloids, social media, websites, or other sources of information.
I'm trying to figure out why this is a problem. I'm hardly going to be considered an apologist for Hollywood (have you seen what I've written about Hollywood?) but why shouldn't Hollywood also be protected by California's anti-SLAPP law? We should all be concerned about lawsuits designed to stifle anyone's speech without any legitimate basis. And while I frequently point out how Hollywood seems to have no problem stifling speech through over-aggressive use of copyright, that doesn't mean I won't stand up and argue it deserves just as much protection under the 1st Amendment as anyone else -- and that's why, of course, California's anti-SLAPP law should apply to them -- and it does.
On top of that, while I think that Hollywood has strayed quite far from its roots, historically, Hollywood and the MPAA were strong defenders of free speech, and owe much of their business to a strong First Amendment. It's unfortunate that they've since become very opportunistic about it, choosing to only defend free speech principals when it directly impacts their bottom line, while being quite happy to whittle away free speech rights with stronger copyright or other tools of control. But, given most of what Hollywood does is expressive, there's no reason why anti-SLAPP laws shouldn't apply fully to them, just as they apply to everyone else.