SLAPP Fight In Ohio?

Many thanks to my friend Jonathan Peters for bringing this item to my attention. Jon is a professor at the William Allen White Journalism School at the University of Kansas.  As an aside, White was a fascinating figure in American history. He’s mentioned prominently in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit for being one of the “muckrakers” who helped spur much progressive legislation during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. White also fought against isolationists in the lead up to World War II – not a real popular position for a Midwesterner at that time. But I digress.

Jon’s piece is about a recent ruling from Ohio’s Eighth Appellate District upholding a summary judgment in favor of the Chagrin Valley Times, a small newspaper near Cleveland. The Valley Times reported on a December 2012 protest at the Ohio headquarters of Murray Energy. The protest had to do with Murray’s firing 156 employees following President Obama’s reelection. The Valley Times also published an editorial and an editorial cartoon critical of Murray and its owner Robert Murray. 

Robert Murray has been a guest on Fox News, where he has decried President Obama’s efforts to “destroy America.”

But, like most bullies, Mr. Murray is great at dishing it out and not so great at taking it.  Murray and his company filed suit against the Valley Times for libel and “false light publicity.”  Following a period of discovery the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Valley Times, meaning the court found the Valley Times was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. There was not enough of a case to waste a jury’s time.  And the court of appeals upheld that decision.

But that was the easy part. What makes the case most interesting is the conclusion to the Court’s Opinion. There, the court urges the Ohio legislature to adopt anti-SLAPP legislation. A SLAPP suit is a “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” It’s a suit where a big self-righteous bully, let’s call him “Robert Murray”, brings a lawsuit to shut down the free speech rights of people who disagree with him. Even if the suit is meritless, and even if he loses, the cost of defense may make the other side think twice before they open their mouths the next time. 

Anti-SLAPP legislation exists in 28 states and the District of Columbia. As Jon explains,  “Anti-SLAPP statutes . . . typically provide five things: protections for speech on issues of public concern and for activities related to petitioning the government, procedures to obtain early dismissal of a SLAPP, recovery of attorney’s fees and court costs for the target, speedy review of any motions to dismiss, and restrictions on the discovery process while the court considers such a motion.”  And as the Eighth District Appellate Court notes, “In this era of decentralized journalism where the internet has empowered individuals with broad reach, society must balance competing privacy interests with freedom of speech. Given Ohio’s particularly strong desire to protect individual speech, as embodied in its Constitution, Ohio should adopt an anti-SLAPP statute to discourage punitive litigation designed to chill constitutionally protected speech.”

Here’s hoping the Ohio General Assembly includes this on their list of New Year’s resolutions!