July 22, 2020

Senate and Assembly Majorities Advance Anti-SLAPP Legislation to Protect Free Speech

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie today announced the Senate and Assembly have passed legislation that offers legal protection to any individual or entity sued for exercising their free speech rights. A “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation,” often referred to as a “SLAPP”, is a tactic often employed by powerful interests that involves initiating a frivolous lawsuit intended to silence free speech and public participation in our democratic process.

“New Yorkers’ voices must not be silenced by powerful interests and the super wealthy,” Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins said. “SLAPP lawsuits that are employed to discourage free speech threaten our democracy and work against the people of New York. I applaud Senator Hoylman for his work in championing this bill and protecting the free speech of ALL New Yorkers.”

“SLAPP’s have the dangerous potential to censor the type of free speech that is fundamental to a free and democratic society,” said Speaker Heastie. “This legislation will discourage these types of lawsuits and protect the people and institutions that we depend on to be an informed public. I would also like to thank Assemblymember Weinstein for her longtime tireless commitment to protecting free speech for all New Yorkers.”

Senate bill sponsor Senator Brad Hoylman, said, “For decades, Donald Trump, his billionaire friends, large corporations and other powerful forces have abused our legal system by attempting to harass, intimidate and impoverish their critics with strategic lawsuits against public participation, or ‘SLAPP’ suits. This broken system has led to journalists, consumer advocates, survivors of sexual abuse and others being dragged through the courts on retaliatory legal challenges solely intended to silence them. Today, New York’s Democratic Majority ‘SLAPPs back’ with our new legislation (S.52A/A.5991A) that expands anti-SLAPP protections, thereby strengthening First Amendment rights in New York State, the media capital of the world. I’m thrilled to see this legislation pass the Senate today thanks to the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and alongside my Assembly colleague Helene Weinstein.”

“The dangerous message that these lawsuits send is that criticism will cost you,” said Assembly bill sponsor Helene Weinstein. “Recent experience has shown that there are an increasing number of deep pocketed individuals who have outrageously used New York’s court system as a means to harass New Yorkers who have publicly disagreed with them. These lawsuits are started not because they have any chance of ultimate success – they don’t – but to make sure that others don’t speak out publicly, for fear of being sued. It is clear that the best remedy for this problem is to require those who bring these lawsuits to pay the legal fees and costs of those who they have wrongfully sued, along with an expedited means for the courts to toss these cases into the dustbin of history. I wish to express my appreciation to Speaker Heastie for his leadership and support on this important issue, and I also wish to express my thanks to Senator Hoylman for so skillfully guiding the bill through the Senate.”

Today’s legislation will broaden New York’s existing anti-SLAPP statute by revising the definition of an “action involving public petition and participation” to include a broader definition matters in the “public interest.” Current law has been narrowly interpreted by the courts and typically limited to cases initiated by an individual or business entity that is embroiled in controversies over a public application or permit. Under this bill, if a defendant’s speech or activity falls under the protection of the statute, judges will have the ability to dispose of these meritless claims quickly (S.52A/A.5991-A).

Too often, these SLAPP lawsuits are used to chill free speech, by threatening an individual or entity with liability for personal damages, as well as having to hire a lawyer themselves. These types of threats often incentivize self-censorship and thus stifle free speech. In addition to making dismissal of SLAPP suits less difficult and prolonged, today’s legislation would also require that victims of SLAPP lawsuits receive an award of costs and attorney’s fees, thus strongly discouraging those who attempt to chill free speech.