One of our current defamation suits involves a man that was accused of being a pedophile. He is not a pedophile, and the defendant freely admits that she does not really think he is a pedophile. Indeed, the Defendant says that our client has never done anything that would warrant her making such a claim. But that doesn’t stop her from making the claim anyway, because she doesn’t like him. That’s why we are suing her for defamation.
Here’s where the case gets stranger. Even though Defendant admits our client is not a pedophile, her attorney brought an anti-SLAPP motion claiming that our complaint should be thrown out because Defendant’s false statements are protected speech. Confused? Let me see if I can walk you through opposing counsel’s logic.
A Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (“SLAPP”) is a lawsuit or a threat of lawsuit that is intended to intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition. Winning the lawsuit is not necessarily the intent of the person filing the SLAPP. The plaintiff’s goals are accomplished if the defendant abandons the criticism to make the lawsuit go away.
To guard against the use of lawsuits designed to quash free speech, California passed an anti-SLAPP statute. Code of Civil Procedure Section 425.16 provides a quick procedure a defendant can use to stop a SLAPP suit. Rather than goes through a year of costly litigation, a defendant can bring a simple motion to strike the complaint. The court then decides whether the speech in question is protected free speech.
Section 425.16 applies to causes of action “against a person arising from any act of that person in furtherance of the person’s right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue.” (§ 425.16, subd. (b)(1).) Such acts include: “(1) any written or oral statement or writing made before a legislative, executive, or judicial proceeding, or any other official proceeding authorized by law; (2) any written or oral statement or writing made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a legislative, executive, or judicial body, or any other official proceeding authorized by law; (3) any written or oral statement or writing made in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest; (4) or any other conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of petition or the constitutional right of free speech in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest.”
So, the first three types of protected speech arise from the traditional forums – statements made in places like court, during a city council meeting or at some other public forum. The fourth criteria can be outside a public forum, such as on a blog on the Internet, but that section requires that the matter being discussed concern a “public issue.” There are many competing court decisions that have tried to define what constitutes a public issue.
In our case, defense counsel argued that the Defendant’s false claim that Plaintiff is a pedophile is protected speech because stopping that behavior is a matter of public interest. He actually argued with a straight face that even when the accusation is a complete lie, one can accuse another of being a child molester and be protected from suit because the subject matter is so important. So, under defense counsel’s approach, certain topics would automatically enjoy heightened free speech protection, regardless of the circumstances. This obviously would make the job of defamers easier, because we could simply create a list of topics we find are important enough to be matters of “public interest” and the defamer could falsely accuse intended victims of those items, knowing the speech is protected.
The judge didn’t think that was a very good idea either. Motion denied. Defamatory speech is not protected speech under the anti-SLAPP statute.
On August 12, 2008, the Second District U.S. Court of Appeals reaffirmed the national and local trend toward recognizing a litigant’s right to proceed anonymously through the courts. In order to sue under a pseudonym, plaintiff’s generally must show that the need for confidentiality outweighs the public’s right to know and any prejudice suffered by defendant due to the secretive pleading. While not necessarily a light burden for plaintiffs, the real strain of the increasingly minted right is on defendants.
Depending on the context of the suit, major public backlashes could be directed at defendants helpless to stop the tide. For instance, defendants sued civilly (publicly) for sexual abuse stand to lose much in the way of reputation, and eventually income, no doubt due in large part to the public’s natural inclination to distance themselves from what might be a perpetrator. While public scrutiny of the would be victim once would serve as a blow-off valve to some extent, now defendants are not only left to deal with an unrelenting public reaction, but will dually reap heightened scrutiny for the same allegations as plaintiffs who have convinced the court of the need for confidentiality will have generally shown that they would face unwarranted injury should their identities be disclosed. In other words, defendants will have no way to call public attention to a plaintiff’s credibility, and the public will be informed, or may very well assume, that defendants or their associates had posed a threat to the plaintiff prior to or during the litigation.
Defendants’ aggressive depiction of all factors assessed by courts of their jurisdiction in deciding whether or not to permit plaintiffs to act incognito is the only recourse afforded to diminish the risk of anonymous lawsuits. Particularly, considering the public has a well established right to know who is using the court system, focusing on the lack of need to preserve a plaintiff’s identity and the severe damage that could be inflicted on a defendant’s personal and/or professional reputations as a result of the anonymous lawsuit would be key. Also, seeking an anonymous designation as a defendant may also assist in preventing unfair prejudice. Ultimately, regardless of a defendant’s choice of tactics the courts have once again increased the need to vigorously litigate cases at the earliest of stages, which requires a heightened state of readiness, and can make litigation all the more daunting.
1. Sealed Plaintiff v. Sealed Defendants, Docket No. 06-1590-cv (Dist. 2d, 2008).
2. Id. at 7-8.