Ohio should stop lawsuits that target free speech

Benjamin J. Marrison of the Columbus Dispatch recently wrote a column advocating for anti-SLAPP legislation in Ohio:

“One of the things readers tell us they value most about The Dispatch is our commitment to watchdog, investigative reporting.

We have intelligent, savvy readers. Based on feedback over the years, it’s clear you appreciate the difficulty of watchdog journalism because you understand the time commitment it requires to dig deep into a subject and the blowback we get from those who are the subjects of our investigative efforts.

Those in power sometimes try to punish journalists for tough reporting. The punishment takes many forms. It is done by withholding or delaying public records we ask for, refusing to make officials accessible for future stories, leaking stories to our competitors and, in some cases, suing or threatening to sue us with the hope of curbing investigative reporting.

It was quite interesting — and pleasantly surprising — that the 8th District Court of Appeals recently suggested that state lawmakers take action to put an end to lawsuits aimed at suppressing this type of work and the public discussion that comes from it.

The court’s suggestion came in a ruling issued Dec. 11 and involving a lawsuit brought by Murray Energy against a weekly newspaper in northeastern Ohio, the Chagrin Valley Times. The court was considering an appeal from Murray Energy, which sued the newspaper for defamation for its coverage of a 2012 protest and the commentary that followed. In rejecting the appeal, the three-judge panel wrote:

“This case illustrates the need for Ohio to join the majority of states in this country that have enacted statutes that provide for quick relief from suits aimed at chilling protected speech. These suits … can be devastating to individual defendants or small news organizations and act to chill criticism and debate.

“The fact that the Chagrin Valley Times website has been scrubbed of all mention of Murray or this protest is an example of the chilling effects this has.

“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.”

Jonathan Peters, a former University of Dayton professor who now teaches at the University of Kansas, explained in a piece he wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review that anti-SLAPP statutes are designed to negate so-called “ strategic lawsuits against public participation,” which he described as complaints aimed at deterring anyone or any organization from speaking out on issues of public concern.

Peters said such lawsuits “are usually disguised as defamation or invasion of privacy claims, and they’re not designed to win a case on the merits. … They’re designed to intimidate the target and to discourage others from speaking out.”

Twenty-eight states have these statutes to protect free speech. “Ohio needs an anti-SLAPP statute,” Peters wrote, “Every state does.”

Read the rest of the article here.