2012 has been yet another year filled with meritless lawsuits filed solely to chill First Amendment free speech rights -- so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP). As websites relying on user-generated content continue to increase in popularity, we also see a rise in SLAPPs targeting online speech, from the everyday blogger to the one-time online reviewer. Some of the most talked about SLAPPs this year include:
The Oatmeal SLAPP
-- Matthew Inman wrote a blog post condemning FunnyJunk for posting hundreds of his comics without crediting or linking back to his website, The Oatmeal
. Through attorney Charles Carreon, FunnyJunk sent Inman a threat letter over the blog post, claiming it was defamatory and demanding $20,000. Inman’s response? To publicly post the letter with a hilarious critique and start an online fundraising campaign to raise $20,000. Yet, instead of reaching his $20,000 goal and sending the money to FunnyJunk, he raised over $200,000 and gave all of the money to charity. Carreon couldn’t let it go and filed a lawsuit to try to derail the fundraising campaign, but later voluntarily dismissed it.
SLAPP 4 Jesus
-- Even churches are SLAPP happy, as evidenced by a SLAPP filed by Beaverton Grace Bible Church in Oregon against former church members who had blogged and written online reviews of their experiences at the church. The judge ruled that the case was a SLAPP and ordered the church to pay the defendants' attorneys fees.
Rachel Maddow SLAPPed 4 Jesus
-- A defamation suit against Rachel Maddow was filed by Bradlee Dean, an anti-LGBT preacher from Minnesota. Dean sued Maddow after she ran a story on The Rachel Maddow Show, where she aired a segment from Dean's radio show where he said that Muslims were "more moral than even the American Christians" because they were "calling for the execution for homosexuals." Luckily for Maddow, Washington D.C. enacted a strong anti-SLAPP law last year. The judge ruled that the case was a SLAPP and ordered Dean to pay Maddow's attorneys fees.
"The Pink Slime" SLAPP
-- Beef Products, Inc., a South Dakota beef producer, recently filed a defamation lawsuit against ABC News, seeking at least $1.2 billion in damages, claiming the broadcaster unfairly disparaged its beef additive by labeling it "pink slime." The Complaint was filed last month and ABC has not yet responded.
Fortunately for Inman, the church SLAPP defendants and Rachel Maddow, California, Oregon and Washington DC have all enacted anti-SLAPP statutes. Unfortunately for ABC, Beef Products filed their defamation lawsuit in South Dakota, which does not have an anti-SLAPP law. What this means is that they will not be able to bring an anti-SLAPP motion and potentially get the case dismissed early and have their attorneys’ fees awarded. However, South Dakota is not alone -- almost half of the states have not enacted anti-SLAPP laws
, demonstrating the need for a federal law to protect against meritless SLAPPs.
2012 marked the second time federal anti-SLAPP legislation was introduced in Washington DC. In 2009, Congressman Steve Cohen introduced the Citizen Participation Act in the House of Representatives, which ultimately died when it was referred to committee. This year, retiring Senator John Kyl introduced the Free Press Act of 2012
. Unfortunately, Sen. Kyl's bill has a very narrow anti-SLAPP provision that only applies to representatives of the news media. But hopefully Senator Kyl's bill can be a starting point to build bi-partisan support for strong and robust federal anti-SLAPP legislation after the November elections. With a recent endorsement
of federal anti-SLAPP legislation from the American Bar Association, a national association of attorneys and the world's largest voluntary professional organization, a fresh session of Congress in 2013 looks promising for the future of anti-SLAPP legislation protecting all Americans' right to speak out.
Evan Mascagni is an Organizer with the Public Participation Project, the only organization in the country whose sole mission is to enact federal anti-SLAPP legislation.