Newspaper wins anti-SLAPP motion in suit

Samantha Fredrickson | Libel | Feature | April 17, 2009

A Massachusetts court last week dismissed a defamation lawsuit against the Wareham Observer using the state’s anti-SLAPP statute.

It appears to be the first case in Massachusetts in which a newspaper has successfully pursued an anti-SLAPP motion against a libel plaintiff who opposed it, said the newspaper's attorney, Michael Pezza.

Wareham Police Chief Thomas Joyce sued the Observer and its owner, Robert Slager, after the newspaper ran a series of articles reporting on the local police chief’s actions.

The newspaper moved to dismiss the case under the anti-SLAPP law, which allows for early dismissals of claims that are “based on a party’s exercise of its right of petition under the constitution.” (The acronym stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.)

Chief Joyce argued that the anti-SLAPP statute could only be used by private individuals, and not by commercial media defendants.

But the Massachusetts Superior Court sided with the Observer, holding that the anti-SLAPP law applied equally to commercial corporations and individual speakers.

“If a statement has the potential or intent to redress a grievance, or directly or indirectly to influence, inform, or bring about governmental consideration of the issue, it can qualify for protection as petitioning activity,” the court wrote.

The court went on to hold that while Joyce had argued that the newspaper’s statements did not have a factual basis, he had failed to provide evidence showing they were indeed false.  

"Allowing the special motion to dismiss accomplished exactly what the anti-SLAPP statute intended," Pezza said of the ruling. "In this case, the court apparently recognized that the media defendants were not seeking special treatment, but were arguing that they are entitled to the same protection as other parties, whether individuals or commercial entities."