Anti-SLAPP law needed to protect free speech rights
“Remember the Golden Rule! Whoever has the gold, makes the rules!” - cartoonists Brant Parker and Johnny Hart made that satirical observation in 1964 in the Wizard of Id comic strip as a commentary on society and politics at the time. Sadly, not much has changed since then.
New state legislation introduced last week is aimed to level the playing field somewhat by making those who use the courts as a weapon against dissent, pay the legal bills when their cases are tossed out by judges.
Strategic lawsuits against public participation — or SLAPP lawsuits — are a way of intimidating and silencing critics by burdening them with the cost of expensive, baseless legal proceedings. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 31 states and Washington D.C. have passed anti-SLAPP laws in recent years.
Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) and Rep. Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg) want to make Wisconsin the next state to pass anti-SLAPP protections.
The proposed legislation would allow a person being sued to file a motion to strike the lawsuit if it arises from the individual’s right of petition or free speech in connection with a public issue. Judges that find in a defendant’s favor could dismiss the lawsuit and order the plaintiff who filed the original suit to pay for the other person’s attorney fees and costs.
The bill came in response to national news articles about the ongoing legal battles between The Wausau Pilot and Review and current 29th district state Sen. Cory Tomczyk (R-Mosinee) over comments that paper reported on in 2021 before Tomczyk was elected. The paper’s owners claim they have spent more than $150,000 in defending themselves from the defamation suit that one judge dismissed with an appeal pending.
The harsh reality of the current system is civil lawsuits have more to do with who has the deepest pockets than who is in the right. This is especially true for small media companies reporting on important issues in their communities. Being right doesn’t pay the lawyer bills, nor does it cover payroll, rent or utilities.
SLAPP lawsuits have been used to suppress individuals and organizations that have given voice to the voiceless and who have been a platform of public debate and dissenting opinions.
This is not to excuse those who would intentionally seek to cause harm through defamation and slander. The proposed anti-SLAPP bill requires the judge in each case to issue a ruling and decide if it was a public issue and able to have the additional protections.
There will always be those who seek to use their power, wealth and prestige to silence opposing voices, especially when those voices have the audacity to point out when the would-be emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.
Wisconsin needs an anti-SLAPP law to
The Star News.
bring an extra layer of protection to local news coverage and to allow news organizations to serve their communities without risking their livelihood when someone disagrees with what they say.
Contact your state legislators and urge them to support measures to provide anti-SLAPP protections in Wisconsin.
Contact your legislators: Rep. James Edming
Madison Office: Room 109, West State Capitol, PO Box 8952, Madison, WI 53708 Telephone: (888) 534-0087 Email: Rep.Edming@legis.wisconsin.gov
Senator Cory Tomczyk
Madison Office: Room 310, South State Capitol, PO Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707 Telephone: (608) 266-2502 Email: Sen.Tomczyk@legis.wisconsin.gov