Commentary

New York's Anti-SLAPP Law Is Victory For Publishers

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week signed legislation aimed at curbing frivolous lawsuits that wealthy plaintiffs can abuse to silence critics. The law improves protections for publishers and journalists in the state against strategic lawsuits against public participation, or "SLAPPs."

Affluent plaintiffs typically file such suits to harass or even bankrupt critics who don't have the financial resources to mount a defense. Even if those plaintiffs don't have any expectation they will prevail in court, the threat of a costly lawsuit can be enough to chill news reporting.

"I am proud to sign this legislation, which protects New Yorkers' fundamental right to free speech without fear of harassment or bullying by those who happen to have more money than they do," Cuomo saidin prepared remarks.

State assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, D-Queens, and Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, drafted the legislation to expand on the state's narrow anti-SLAPP measures by covering speech or other activities protected by the First Amendment about issues of public interest. The new law gives a judge the option of dismissing such cases and requiring a plaintiff to cover the defendant's legal fees.

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The governor chided President Trump for allegedly abusing New York's legal system to go after critics. Trump once sued Timothy O’Brien, currently the editor of Bloomberg News' op-ed section, when he was a business reporter for The New York Timesand wrote a book that questioned whether Trump really was a billionaire.

Trump lost the suit after an appeals court upheld a judge's decision to dismiss it, but said in an interview: "I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees and they spent a whole lot more. I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about."

While many publishers typically have libel insurance to help defray their legal costs, SLAPPs can still be an unnecessary distraction when they involve countless depositions, meetings with defense attorneys and requests for production of every document pertaining to the case.

New York’s anti-SLAPP provides for a stay of discovery when a defendant files a motion to dismiss the SLAPP suit and changes permissive fee-shifting to mandatory fee-shifting. While New York is the latest state to adopt a stronger anti-SLAPP law, a federal law is also needed to help deter frivolous suits against publishers and journalists.

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