A brief history of a powerful legal remedy to baseless suits

Professor Tamara Kay’s defamation lawsuit against the Irish Rover was dismissed by the St. Joseph County, Indiana Superior Court on January 8, 2024 under Indiana’s Anti-SLAPP law. Anti-SLAPP statutes are a remedy to SLAPP suits, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. SLAPP suits lack any true legal claim and typically entail allegations of defamation, libel, and emotional distress. They are often brought against journalists, usually resulting in lengthy and expensive legal proceedings. 

Thirty-three states as well as the District of Columbia currently have Anti-SLAPP statutes, but the actual content of the laws varies significantly. Some states apply Anti-SLAPP statutes only in cases of retaliation for petitioning the government, whereas in California, “the laws broadly protect speech made in connection with a public issue,” according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Regardless of their scope, Anti-SLAPP laws provide journalists with an avenue towards a quick dismissal prior to undergoing the costly legal discovery process. Many statutes also provide the opportunity for defendants to recover attorney fees and costs. Anti-SLAPP laws aim to prevent the silencing of journalists engaged in controversial reporting and help to mitigate the risk of costly and ultimately baseless litigation. 

Indiana’s Anti-SLAPP law was enacted in 1998. Found in Indiana Code § 34-7-7-1 et seq., it states that “any conduct in furtherance of free speech or petition in connection with a public issue or issue of public interest, is protected.” In addition to shielding journalists and other news reporters from the burden of expensive legal proceedings, Anti-SLAPP laws also protect against the chilling of free speech and free press.

In 2019, Nancy Chapman, a journalist from Connecticut running a nonprofit news website, published an article about a local political candidate’s past arrests. She was sued for invasion of privacy and emotional distress. For an independent journalist like Mrs. Chapman, the cost of the suit would have put her out of business. 

In a similar case, the Kansas City Star was sued for defamation by a state senator in response to a 2019 article that criticized his position on Medicare. Because the information published was true and relevant to the public interest in both cases, the lawsuits were dismissed early through Anti-SLAPP statutes. When the June 2023 SLAPP lawsuit against the Irish Rover was dismissed in early January, it became the latest instance of Anti-SLAPP laws protecting journalists from baseless accusations. 

The Irish Rover’s case was peculiar among Anti-SLAPP litigation because it entailed a professor suing a student newspaper at her own institution. Student journalists more often face litigation from parties outside the university. A related high-profile case occurred at Tufts University in 2022, when a local landlord sued the student newspaper, the Tufts Daily, for defamation and emotional distress following their coverage of a local protest at his business. Their case was quickly dismissed, since their coverage of his statements was deemed to be accurate and, therefore, not defamation.

Similarly, a 2020 lawsuit against The Maroon at Loyola University of New Orleans was brought by Sonya Duhé, the director of the Loyola’s School of Communication and Design. The newspaper had covered complaints by students claiming that Director Duhé made racist remarks, and Duhé sued for defamation. The case was also recently dismissed in 2023 under Louisiana’s Anti-SLAPP statute

In the recent case brought against the Irish Rover by Professor Tamara Kay, Indiana’s Anti-SLAPP Statute protected the Rover’s freedom of speech. The court ruled that the two articles cited in Dr. Kay’s suit were protected as “free speech… in connection with a public issue or issue of public interest.” The court deemed that “the alleged defamatory statements were true, within the meaning of the law, not made with actual malice, and did not contain a defamatory inference, and there were no damages that were causally linked to the Irish Rover articles.” For these reasons, Judge Steven Davis ruled that Kay’s defamation claim “fails as a matter of law.”

Catalina Scheider Galiñanes is a junior from the Washington, D.C. area majoring in economics and political science with a minor in constitutional studies. She is available to discuss liberalism, Virginia elections, and country music at cscheid2@nd.edu.

Photo Credit: Chris Light. Wikimedia Commons.

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