Lawmakers take aim at lawsuits that quash public participation
Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester) said everyone should be concerned whenever someone uses the court system to try to suppress speech. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
Several state lawmakers have introduced legislation intended to shut down lawsuits that aim to intimidate or silence critics.
A bill by Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester) would give judges more power to dismiss lawsuits known as “SLAPPs,” short for strategic lawsuits against public participation. Deep-pocketed companies and powerful officials often resort to such complaints to stifle conversation or criticism about issues of public concern.
Everyone should be concerned anytime someone uses the court system to try to suppress speech on an issue of public importance, Moriarty said.
“Oftentimes, this is done by people that have the means to do it,” he added. “These lawsuits take many forms, from claims that you’ve slandered them to saying you’re interfering in a public process. This bill gives some methodology for someone to fight back if they believe it was an illegitimate lawsuit designed to shut them up and make them go away.”
Moriarty introduced his bill in March — the fourth consecutive legislative session he has sponsored the bill. The measure repeatedly has failed to gain traction, particularly in the state Senate.
Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have anti-SLAPP laws on the books, according to the Institute for Free Speech. New Jersey does not, prompting the institute in February to give the Garden State an ‘F’ on its national report card examining states’ anti-SLAPP protections.
In one example of a SLAPP case, a Connecticut journalist was hit with a lawsuit after she published details on a political candidate’s prior drunken driving arrest. Her attorney mounted an anti-SLAPP defense and won. A Texas couple argued they were targets of a SLAPP from a pet care company after they posted a bad review of it on Yelp. A judge dismissed the lawsuit under Texas’s anti-SLAPP law.
A few other lawmakers joined Moriarty’s cause recently. Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) and Sen. Joseph Lagana (D-Bergen) introduced a similar bill last month modeled after the Uniform Public Expression Protection Act proposed by the nonprofit Uniform Law Commission in 2020. That organization of state commissioners recommends and drafts model state legislation.
The Mukherji/Lagana bill specifies that it’s intended to protect communication in legislative, judicial, or other governmental proceedings, as well as constitutionally protected speech (whether expressed by the press, in protests, or in any other form) on matters of public concern.
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