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A bill sponsored by Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, D-Baltimore City, would make it easier to have dismissed “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” known as SLAPPs, which media and advocacy groups claim are filed in an attempt to silence them. (File)

Rights groups, media organizations seek stronger anti-SLAPP law

ANNAPOLIS — Civil-rights, media, environmental and victims-rights groups urged lawmakers Wednesday to pass legislation making it easier for the organizations to win dismissal of frivolous lawsuits brought primarily to silence them.

The measure, House Bill 263, is intended to strengthen statutory protections against “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPPs, by removing the requirement that groups seeking to dismiss such litigation prove they had been filed “in bad faith” and were “intended to inhibit” their free-expression rights.

Under HB 263, a party seeking dismissal instead would have to show that the lawsuit was meritless and brought to chill the groups’ actions “in furtherance” of their rights to petition and free speech before a governmental body or the public at large on any “issue of public interest.”

“Freedom of speech and the right to petition the government are enshrined in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” Sara Love, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, stated in written testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, which held a hearing on the measure.

HB 263 is “a critical step forward to ensuring that Marylanders can exercise their constitutional rights free from retaliation in the form of baseless, harassing and expensive lawsuits,” Love added.

HB 263 would require that all discovery motions and pending hearings in the litigation be stayed upon the filing of the motion to dismiss unless “good cause” is shown for discovery and hearings to occur.

The measure would also require judges to hold a hearing on the motion to dismiss within 30 days of its filing and issue a ruling within 60 days after the hearing.

If the lawsuit is dismissed, the party defending against the SLAPP suit would be entitled to court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees.

But if the judge finds that the motion to dismiss was frivolous, the party that brought suit would be entitled to court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees.

These required court procedures and awards drew criticism from the Maryland Judiciary, which opposed HB 263.

“These provisions take away judicial discretion and preclude the court from considering the individual facts and circumstances of each case,” the Judiciary stated in written testimony to the committee. “Judicial discretion permits judges to consider legislative intent as well as unique case by case factors.”

Needed deterrent

But the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association called the bill’s dismissal proceedings and availability of attorneys’ fees necessary provisions to protect news organizations from frivolous libel lawsuits intended to chill investigative reporting.

“SLAPPs stifle public debate, threaten news reporting and diminish civic engagement – principles fundamental to our democracy,” Rebecca Snyder, MDDC’s executive director, told the House committee.

“This is especially important to members of the press because informing and engaging the public can leave publications vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits,” Snyder added. “The fee-shifting provisions of this legislation, especially, will deter meritless suits. These suits take time, money and energy away from reporting the news.”

The Daily Record is a member of MDDC.

Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, said HB 263 enables environmental groups to speak out against polluters without fear of costly, meritless litigation designed only to keep them quiet.

The legislation also “respects and maintains the difficult balance of protecting citizens’ free speech while avoiding overly punitive measures so as not to deter the filing of valid lawsuits and ensure every deserving party gets their day in court,” Nicholas told the House committee.

Lisae C. Jordan, executive director and counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said making it easier to combat SLAPP suits would remove a hurdle to the willingness of victims to report assaults on college campuses.

“Sexual-assault survivors across the country are increasingly facing lawsuits brought to discourage exercising their rights in college sexual-misconduct proceedings and related Title IX actions,” Jordan stated in written testimony to the committee. “While not all of these retaliatory suits will qualify as SLAPP suits, some will and HB263 will help discourage this type of litigation abuse.”

Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, D-Baltimore City, is the chief sponsor of the legislation. The bill has not been cross-filed in the Senate.