Last week Tennessee passed a meaningful anti-SLAPP bill, currently pending Governor Bill Lee’s signature, that will become law. SLAPPs, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, are used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend frivolous defamation suits. The bill passed in both the State House and Senate, with the latter sending a strong message by voting 33-0 in favor of the bill.
Attorney Daniel Horwitz––who has been a staunch advocate for exercising one’s constitutional right to criticize the powerful––explained that Tennessee’s current anti-SLAPP law has been useless in preventing the “well-resourced to threaten, censor, abuse, and intimidate those who lack the means, knowledge, or fortitude to defend themselves.”
This reform is significant because most people are not able or willing to endure the financial consequences and years of stress that commonly accompany these lawsuits, regardless of their legally-meritless nature. As a result, bad actors wielding these baseless litigation threats are often successful in forcing people to either keep quiet or self-censor. Effective July 1, 2019, the law will enable defendants to recover all of the legal fees they incurred as a result of SLAPP litigation. Therefore, this reform will deter plaintiffs from filing baseless speech-based lawsuits against people who lawfully exercise their fundamental right to speak freely.
Citizens’ rights to hear and receive information are vital to the well-being of a democracy. As a result, when individuals who speak out on issues of public interest have their First Amendment rights violated, entire societies are left to suffer the consequences.
As a private institution, Rhodes College is not required to recognize students’ expressive rights by virtue of the First Amendment. However, it makes strong promises that it will do so, pledging to “safeguard the freedom of expression” and to respect “the rights of” students “to peaceful and unobstructed expressions of opinion.” If this passes, it will immediately benefit student journalists at Rhodes College; and more broadly, you, the public, will benefit by having access to vital information, critical commentary, and criticism from those who are currently being forced to self-censor.