California Supreme Court Narrows Anti-SLAPP Exemption

The California Supreme Court in mid-December ruled that a statutory exception to the state's landmark anti-SLAPP statute should be narrowly construed, reversing a lower court ruling to the contrary.

California's anti-SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) statute, which was the first of its kind when it was passed in 1992, allows defendants to make a special motion to strike any claim against them arising out of their "right of petition or free speech" unless the plaintiff can show a probability of success on the claim.  In essence, the statute prevents plaintiffs from using litigation to chill the speech of those who seek to participate in debate on issues of public importance.  By giving defendants an avenue to throw out such a suit early in the process -- before motions and discovery consume substantial time and money -- the statute keeps plaintiffs from using the threat of litigation to quiet debate.  California's statute also gives prevailing defendants the opportunity to recover their attorneys' fees.

At issue in the recent case taken upon by California's Supreme Court was Section 425.17 of the California Code of Civil Procedure, which provides an exception to the state's anti-SLAPP law for "any action brought solely in the public interest or on behalf of the general public." 

The underlying dispute arose out of the Sierra Club's 2004 elections for five board of directors positions.  In the weeks just prior to the election, the then-current board sent out notices to club members warning them that if they did not take part in the elections, a small minority faction influenced by "outside groups" could win the spots and eventually control the board.  One of the candidates opposing the current board filed suit, seeking injunctive relief including removal of the newly elected board members.  The Sierra Club sought to have parts of the suit dismissed under the anti-SLAPP statute, which the trial court granted.  On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that the public interest exception applied here because the "principal thrust or gravamen" of the plaintiffs' complaint was to advance the public interest.

The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that given the clear statutory language, the public interest exception could only apply when the sole motivation for the suit was the public interest.  If the plaintiff stands to receive any relief in addition to that received by the public in general, the exception cannot apply.  This narrow interpretation of the Section 425.17 exception is a significant victory for those seeking to preserve the vitality of public debate in California.

In an upcoming post, we will look more in-depth at anti-SLAPP statutes around the country and what they mean for journalists and news organizations.

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