SLAPP Lawsuits

SLAPP LawsuitsSLAPP lawsuits have nothing to do with an aggrieved party suing after getting smacked around by another. SLAPP is an acronym for “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation”. Currently, 30 states have statutes to prevent SLAPP lawsuits.

What’s this about?
If you’re a fan of John Oliver’s show HBO comedy news show, “Last Week Tonight”, you already know. In 2017 Oliver ran a segment mocking a particularly horrid businessman for negligent actions against his employees which arguably resulted in the death of his coal workers. His segment was provable as true while also being a profane attack against the businessman – all of which is protected under the Constitution as well as Supreme Court precedent. Truthful content coupled with “‘loose, figurative language that cannot reasonably be understood to convey facts” is not libelous.

Didn’t matter. This businessman sued Oliver and HBO and it took two years to make its way through the courts with this plaintiff losing every step of the way. He eventually dismissed his suit after his company filed for bankruptcy and the businessman was demoted by his own company. Big win for Oliver, no? Not really. He wasn’t able to speak about this issue for 2 years, HBO spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and HBO’s insurance premium for libel coverage tripled.

The goal for the plaintiff wasn’t to win the suit, it was to chill free speech – it was a shot across the bow to silence critics everywhere. Dare cross the plaintiff and suffer the consequences of legal fees, litigation, and endless appeals. It was truly a matter of squelching Constitutionally mandated free speech.

Florida is among the 30 states that have a law to prevent SLAPP lawsuits, thankfully. Florida Statute 768.295 reads: “It is the public policy of this state that a person or governmental entity not engage in SLAPP suits because such actions are inconsistent with the right of persons to exercise such constitutional rights of free speech in connection with public issues……It is the intent of the Legislature that such lawsuits be expeditiously disposed of by the courts.”

If someone files a spurious lawsuit in Florida found to be without merit intended to prevent that person from speaking out about an issue, the lawsuit will be dismissed with damages and attorneys’ fees awarded to the prevailing party.

Beware though: Libel laws still hold for those who have been implicated in some fabricated story even if one is famous. However, the “loose, figurative language” – also known as “jokes” – is a tough standard for celebrities and notables to pursue. John Oliver celebrated his show’s victory by leading a Broadway-style number featuring the “Suck My Balls Bob” dancers and Mr. Nutterbutter, the staff member dressed up in a squirrel costume from the 2017 segment. They danced in Times Square beneath an explosion of fireworks reading, “Eat Shit Bob!”

Picture Credit: Pixabay

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