There is a history of public figures using the court system or threats of litigation as intimidation methods to prevent people from engaging in free speech. In particular, this has affected people who made negative statements about those figures.
The Public Participation Project explains that to protect people’s rights to free speech, many states, including New York, have a law to stop these strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs.
Changes to the definition of public interest
Previously, the state’s anti-SLAPP law only affected cases that involved requests to a government body for zoning changes, permits and other entitlements. This narrow definition of public interest made it essentially ineffective in preventing frivolous lawsuits.
Recent changes are more likely to affect defamation lawsuits filed in state courts. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press notes that these amendments allow people to defend themselves from frivolous lawsuits by widening the definition of public interest to include any subject that is not solely a private matter.
The effects of an anti-SLAPP motion
The defendant has to show that the lawsuit involves “public petition and participation” when filing an anti-SLAPP motion. The judge will review the motion and the pleadings from the plaintiff and defendant. Until the judge issues a ruling on the motion, there is a stay on all proceedings of the original case. The court moves these motions forward on the docket so that cases do not go through a long delay.
If the judge dismisses the case, it can save both sides the expense of going to court. However, the judge may order the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s legal fees as well as punitive damages for attempting to stifle the defendant’s right to free speech.
People who find themselves a party in a defamation suit that involves a matter the law would consider “public interest” may want to explore how an anti-SLAPP motion would affect their case.