Federal Anti-SLAPP Bill Could Help Bloggers, Freelancers

April 7, 2010

Bloggers, freelancers, and small news media are far more likely than big newspapers or broadcast networks to be intimidated by threats of lawsuits for libel and defamation. Public figures and wrongdoers know this — which is why they can often silence little-guy journalists with a lawsuit or the threat of one. Small-scale journalists can rarely afford the legal fees.

Some states (e.g., California) have passed laws to level the playing field for "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation" (SLAPP) suits, as they are called. Now a bill (HR 4364) to protect journalists and citizens against SLAPP suits has been introduced in Congress.

The bill's author is Rep. Steve Cohen (R-TN). It was introduced Dec. 16, 2009 and referred to the House Judiciary Committee. So far, it has gained no additional co-sponsors. While the bill does have significant public support, it is unlikely to go far in this Congress unless more of the members themselves get behind it.

The bill authorizes SLAPP suit defendants to enter a special motion to dismiss the suit as frivolous before a trial starts, and imposes a burden on plaintiffs to prove defendants had knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of falsity. It creates immunity from liability suits for people petitioning the government.

Some 28 states now have some form of anti-SLAPP law. The Cohen bill would only apply to federal cases. While many defamation cases happen at the state level, the Cohen bill targets specific abuses that happen in federal cases — such as use of the discovery process to harass witnesses and whistleblowers.

A broad and growing coalition of citizen and journalism groups has backed Cohen's anti-SLAPP bill, under the rubric of "The Public Participation Project."