While chasing a big story, reporting on a live event, or speaking at a conference, journalists and academics may now have to also think about getting sued over their words anytime a powerful individual disagrees with them. In recent years, Frank VanderSloot, a wealthy entrepreneur and political donor, sued the nonprofit publication Mother Jones over an article about him and his company. Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist MORE used the same tactic against a reporter with the intention of making his “life miserable.” More recently, Las Vegas casino mogul, Steve Wynn, sued a speaker at an academic symposium for his critical opinions of Wynn’s company and its operations in Macau.

These lawsuits and others like them are expensive and time-consuming for defendants, and aim specifically to stifle critical reporting in the future. The risk of facing a frivolous lawsuit for printing the truth is forcing journalists, academics, and news publications to determine whether they can afford to write about some lawsuit-happy figures in the first place. 

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Unfortunately, the threat of censorship through lawsuit intimidation isn’t limited to the traditional news industry. It extends to people like you and me. Powerful individuals and businesses use  Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) to silence critics who write online reviews, blogs, social media posts, and other popular forms of online expression.

Matthew White is a victim of a SLAPP. He was hit with a lawsuit for sharing his honest — but critical — opinion of a flooring company in Colorado with other consumers on Yelp. While he initially pursued the case (and continued to maintain his review was truthful), the high cost of legal fees forced him to settle.

Shaun Martin is another SLAPP victim. As a law professor, Martin routinely blogs about legal cases on California Appellate Report. Over a year after he wrote about a particular case, he, the university he teaches at, the president of said university, and the dean of its law school were hit with a SLAPP from the case’s plaintiff. The case was ultimately dismissed as a result of California’s anti-SLAPP law.

Another SLAPP victim is Michael Inman, creator of the popular online comic The Oatmeal. Inman was hit with a defamation suit for criticizing a rival humor platform for hosting some of his content without permission. The case was eventually dropped, but not before Inman and his supporters responded in a bold way.

These are just a few examples of these increasingly common lawsuits, which target average citizens who are not prepared to take on the steep price tag that accompanies litigation. To combat these speech-squelching litigants, some states have enacted anti-SLAPP legislation to protect public discourse and those who share their truthful experiences and opinions online.

But a patchwork of state laws, with differing levels of protection, isn’t enough.

We need a federal bill to ensure all Americans, regardless of geography or the type of claim asserted, are protected and empowered to speak the truth, online and off. Fortunately, politicians and public interest groups — as well as media outlets, legal scholars, advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, companies like Yelp and TripAdvisor, and many others — all agree.

Last year, Reps. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdMembers spar over sexual harassment training deadline Female Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations Lawmaker seeks to ban ex-members from lobbying until sexual harassment settlements repaid MORE (R-Texas) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) introduced the SPEAK FREE Act of 2015. The bill, which is the focus of a House Subcommittee on Constitution and Civil Justice hearing today, aims to discourage the use of SLAPPs by providing defendants with a robust, speedy, and affordable way to dismiss meritless cases that target speech in federal court. It also includes a fee-shifting provision, which will allow winning defendants to collect their legal fees, and for the first time, will enable anti-SLAPP motions to be filed in response to meritless federal claims that target legitimate speech.

Consumers shouldn’t have to fear bankruptcy for giving their honest, yet critical, opinions about local businesses, and bloggers should not face time-consuming, expensive litigation for freely expressing themselves.

It’s time for us to protect freedom of speech — whether online or offline — and give defendants a fair way to fight abusive litigation. It’s time for Congress to pass the SPEAK FREE Act. 


Aaron Schur is the Senior Director of Litigation at Yelp.