(TRENTON) - Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Joseph Lagana and Troy Singleton to protect the public against lawsuits meant to silence healthy debate and criticism was cleared by the full Assembly, 69-3-1, on Thursday.
The bill (A-603) would address the problem of "SLAPP" lawsuits (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) brought against individuals who speak out about public issues. The intention of the plaintiffs who file these suits is not to win, but to stop defendants from voicing their criticism.
"SLAPP suits are nothing more than thinly veiled attempts to silence defendants by putting them through a costly and complicated legal process," said Lagana (D- Bergen/Passaic). "This goes against our democratic ideals and is an abuse of our judicial system. This bill would allow defendants exercising their right to free speech to have these frivolous suits dismissed before they turn into procedural nightmares."
"What makes our country great is the freedom we all have to speak our minds, whether in favor or in opposition, on issues that affect us as a whole," said Singleton (D-Burlington). "These lawsuits manipulate the judicial system to censor public debate. No one should be denied the right to voice an opinion or criticism for fear of being dragged into an expensive, tedious and pointless legal battle."
Under the bill, a party may file a special motion to dismiss a claim arising from "an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of public interest." The bill defines such an act as:
(1) a written or oral statement made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a legislative, executive, or judicial body, or any other official proceeding authorized by law, made in a place open to the public or in a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest; or
(2) an expression or expressive conduct that involves petitioning the government or communicating views to members of the public in connection with an issue of public interest.
The motion would have to be filed within 45 days after service of the claim. The motion to dismiss would be granted if the party makes a prima facie showing the claim arises from an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on an issue of public interest, unless the responding party demonstrates the claim is likely to succeed on the merits, in which case the motion would be denied.
The bill would also allow a person - whose personal identifying information is sought pursuant to a discovery order, request, or subpoena in connection with a SLAPP suit - to make a special motion to quash the order, request, or subpoena.
If the person makes a prima facie showing the underlying claim arises from an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of public interest, the motion to quash would be granted unless the party seeking his personal identifying information demonstrates that the underlying claim is likely to succeed on the merits, in which case the motion would be denied.
Under the bill, a defendant who prevails on a special motion to dismiss a SLAPP suit or a special motion to quash a discovery order, request, or subpoena may be awarded the costs of litigation, including reasonable attorney fees. In addition, the defendant would receive statutory damages of $10,000. Statutory damages may be denied if the court finds the complaint or information made by the defendant in an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of public interest was communicated in bad faith.
The bill was approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee on March 7. The bill would take effect immediately upon enactment and would apply to all claims filed on or after the effective date. The bill will now head to the Senate for further consideration.