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5 Dec 2019

Ben Hitchcock, C-Ville (USA)

USA: Virginia's anti-SLAPP law needs significant improvements to protect against intimidating lawsuits, say advocates

"SLAPP-happy: Virginia’s weak anti-SLAPP law attracts defamation lawsuits", 4 Dec 2019

What do Johnny Depp, California Congressman Devin Nunes, and Confederate statue defender Edward Tayloe II all have in common?

This year, they all filed defamation lawsuits in Virginia...Nunes sued both Twitter and his hometown newspaper, The Fresno Bee, for various perceived slights. And Tayloe sued UVA associate professor Jalane Schmidt, reporter Lisa Provence, and C-VILLE Weekly for writing about his family’s slave-owning past.

This bizarre collection of cases highlights the weakness in Virginia’s rules concerning defamation lawsuits. All of these suits have been called “strategic lawsuits against public participation"...

A recent high-profile SLAPP in West Virginia involved late-night TV host John Oliver, who was sued by coal tycoon Bob Murray after Oliver’s show “Last Week Tonight” aired an episode about Murray’s business practices. Oliver described the SLAPP in layman’s terms—“Obviously the lawsuit was a bullshit effort to silence us,” he said in a follow-up segment on the show...

Thirty-one states have adopted legislation—known as anti-SLAPP laws—to prevent these kinds of lawsuits from being filed. Virginia expanded its anti-SLAPP legislation in 2017, but  advocates say the new statute still isn’t strong enough to be effective. 

Evan Mascagni, policy director at the Public Participation Project, highlights two important components of strong anti-SLAPP statutes that are absent from the Virginia law: a mechanism for frivolous cases to be dismissed before the trial begins, and a provision that requires unsuccessful defamation plaintiffs to pay the attorney’s fees of the defendant.