Why You Should Care About SLAPP Suits and Anti-SLAPP Laws
Hello, you're probably here because someone linked this article in an attempt to educate people about SLAPP lawsuits, why they're bad, and why you should care. What is provided here is a summary of points making clear why SLAPP suits are a real issue and how you or people you know can be impacted by them.
1 - What is a SLAPP suit?
Also explained briefly in this Reddit thread, SLAPP stands for "Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation". It is a civil lawsuit designed to burden defendants with the the costs and stress of defending against a lawsuit, the lawsuit typically having been filed by someone with greater financial resources than the defendant. The intent is to force the defendant - and others like them - into silencing themselves at a minimum, with some being forced to publish retractions under duress, thus "settling" the issue so the defendant can hopefully stop paying the exorbitant legal fees required to deal with the matter and get back to living their life.
SLAPP suits can come in different forms, but the most common is the defamation suit. These are common as SLAPP suits are often filed over negative reviews, allegations of criminal behavior, exposure of fraud, etc. and defamation statutes generally provide a broad enough legal umbrella to allow for attacks against many acts of speech and expression.
2 - Why does this matter to you?
The answer is simple - because anyone can be the victim of a SLAPP suit. Posted a negative review of your doctor after receiving poor treatment or service? SLAPPed. Exposing fraud or bad behavior by a business or other entity? SLAPPed. Tweeting something vaguely mean about someone, including public representatives? SLAPPed. Fairly criticized a video game? SLAPPed.
All of these lawsuits will require hiring a qualified attorney to properly defend against, and the average cost of such an attorney will be around $300 an hour. That $300 an hour fee for your attorney does not include court costs, discovery costs (cost of depositions, production of documents, etc.), and any other ancillary fees. The potential cost of even a successful and early dismissal via a Motion to Dismiss or Special Motion to Strike can exceed $10,000, with the cost to fully litigate some cases soaring into the hundreds of thousands or even millions in highly complex cases with well funded plaintiffs. Additionally, this calculation makes several assumptions about the case and the SLAPP plaintiff - it may very well be that providing yourself with an adequate defense effort involves the participation of multiple attorneys or retaining representation through a resource-rich "Big Law" firm where Partners commonly charge $475+ an hour.
Many Americans would have to dip into savings or pay off a small $1000 emergency expense over time. If your financial situation is "average" or worse, do not get any illusions about being able to pay the costs of defense without taking out large personal loans, selling property, or otherwise going into debt that can quickly become crippling.
That said, there is very little between you and a potentially devastating SLAPP suit. If you post online, talk about people or businesses, submit writings to your local newspaper, or otherwise publish any form of critical speech or expression that is at least tangentially related to another entity, then you are a potential SLAPP target. Your right to free speech and expression can be violated simply because you lack the necessary funds to protect your rights in court.
3 - What are anti-SLAPP laws?
Anti-SLAPP laws are currently the most viable remedy for SLAPP suits. Generally, anti-SLAPP laws place the burden on the plaintiff to demonstrate a likelihood of prevailing in the suit, meaning they often have to produce evidence to convince the court to deny a defendants motion to dismiss under any given states anti-SLAPP law. Should the plaintiff fail and the motion to dismiss be granted, the anti-SLAPP law may allow for fee shifting - in other words, the plaintiff then has to pay the defendants legal fees. This serves as an effective deterrent to bad faith plaintiffs, who should know quite well that they will be made to pay for their frivolous lawsuit should they not prevail.
In the United States, anti-SLAPP laws are currently a state matter and as such not all states have an anti-SLAPP law, and some state's anti-SLAPP laws are fairly weak. No Federal anti-SLAPP law currently exists, which means it may be possible for a plaintiff to dodge a defendant's state based anti-SLAPP law through jurisdictional wrangling. The matter is even more complicated in Federal courts, where the applicability of state anti-SLAPP laws remains largely undecided.
Regardless, anti-SLAPP laws are - barring major reform to the civil justice system - the best defense available against SLAPP suits. They present a deterrent to bad faith plaintiffs and often provide for fee recovery, which is a massive boon to underfunded defendants who can't normally shoulder the burden of defense costs on their own.
4 - What can you do about SLAPP suits?
For one, join r/AntiSLAPP. This is a community driven effort to defeat SLAPP suits and pass anti-SLAPP laws, and we need all the help we can get. There is strength in numbers, and we can accomplish much more when working together as a united mass. Additionally, you can lobby your representatives to pass anti-SLAPP laws, contribute to or follow organizations that fight SLAPP suits like Protect the Protest, and most importantly you can be there to assist others when they become SLAPP targets by contributing to their defense funds and spreading the word about their plight. Sometimes all it takes for a SLAPP plaintiff to back off is for their attempt at suppressing someone's speech to blow up in their face, a la the Streisand Effect.
5 - Conclusion
If you've read all of this, thank you. I hope you will join us in attempting to defeat suppressive litigation everywhere, as one day you or someone you care about might be the target of a SLAPP suit. For more articles and information, follow Social Actuality on Twitter @SocialActuality, or subscribe to the site's email list.
(Originally posted on r/AntiSLAPP on Reddit, edited for context.)