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The New England First Amendment Coalition recently joined an amicus curiae brief arguing in support of the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP law, calling such statutes “increasingly important” and a “vital barrier between a healthy press and its possible financial ruin.”
SLAPPs, or strategic lawsuits against public participation, are frivolous civil lawsuits intended to silence speech and impose significant financial burdens on speakers. Anti-SLAPP laws protect those speakers by requiring plaintiffs to show a legal or factual basis for their suit, or in other words, show that the lawsuit isn’t frivolous.
In Steinmetz v. Coyle, a case being heard by the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, the constitutionality of the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP law is being determined. The Harvard Law School Cyber Law Clinic filed the amicus brief in the case on Jan. 24 on behalf of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and several other media organizations, including NEFAC. They explained that:
Anti-SLAPP laws “provide journalists, publishers, sources, and others with an effective means of disposing of lawsuits brought to chill protected speech and petitioning activities. Every day, news organizations exercise freedom of press and speech rights by venturing into the thick of public controversy to ensure citizens are fully informed about their world and to promote public discourse. As such, the ability of the news media to disseminate information is an essential element of the First Amendment right to petition the government.”
NEFAC and fellow amici argued that the Massachusetts law is consistent with other longstanding anti-SLAPP statutes that protect speech and there is a compelling need for protection from frivolous suits. Striking down the Massachusetts law, amici argued, would have “significant deleterious effects” on free speech rights of the news media and the public at a time when there is an increased need for protection.
“In recent years, costly litigation targeted at news organizations has become a successful tactic for attacking the press,” amici wrote. “Without these valuable state laws protecting substantive free speech rights, litigants could easily use the courts as battlegrounds for suppressing speech and punishing news outlets for unfavorable reporting.”
NEFAC regularly files and joins amicus briefs in cases that affect the First Amendment rights of New Englanders. In addition to joining the Steinmetz brief, NEFAC recently filed an amicus in Rideout v. Gardner, a 2016 case addressing a ban on photography in New Hampshire voting booths; Pinkham v. Maine Dept. of Transportation, a 2016 Maine case involving the right of litigants to obtain government information; and Commonwealth v. Lucas, a 2015 Massachusetts case addressing a state law that restricted free speech rights and could have resulted in unconstitutional restraints on publishers.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.