RCFP: Scope of anti-SLAPP law limited to official proceedings

From the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:

Nov. 30, 2006  ·   A decision by the Georgia Supreme Court has made it more difficult for newspapers, reporters and even nonjournalists to protect themselves from libel lawsuits.

The case, which was decided on Tuesday, concerned a state law that prevents companies, individuals or the government from using costly defamation lawsuits to punish and silence those who legitimately speak out against their decisions or activities. Georgia's statute and similar laws in other states are commonly referred to as "anti-SLAPP statutes" for "strategic lawsuits against public participation."

In 2005, Shirley Berryhill wrote e-mail messages to Atlanta Journal-Constitution employees and the Georgia Department of Human Resources and posted comments on the Internet expressing her dissatisfaction with the treatment her disabled son was receiving at his care facility, Georgia Community Support & Solutions. When the care facility demanded that she apologize for and retract her comments, Berryhill refused.

The care facility sued Berryhill for libel, but she claimed that the lawsuit was intended to silence her and asked the court to dismiss the case under the anti-SLAPP statute.

Although the lower court agreed with Berryhill, both the appeals court and the Georgia Supreme Court said that the law could not apply because Berryhill's comments were not made in connection with any official proceeding.

The case turned on whether the statute's language -- which says that a protected act "includes" speech related to an official proceeding -- used the word "includes" to mean "encompasses" among other things or "is equivalent to."

As a result of Tuesday's opinion, the care facility can move forward with its lawsuit against Berryhill.

In the opinion, Justice George Carley said that the court was only applying the law as the legislature had intended. Joined by three other justices, Carley wrote that the court would not "expand the scope of the anti-SLAPP statute beyond its terms so as to encompass a wide range of speech and conduct which is arguably connected with any issue of public concern."

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