Although an award of court costs and attorney fees is not authorized under Maryland’s anti-SLAPP law — the only one nationwide without such a provision — the measure helped Baltimore journalist Adam Meister avoid an even heftier cost: $21 million in damages a city official was seeking in her defamation and emotional distress lawsuit over one of Meister’s online posts.
In a March column for the Baltimore section of news site examiner.com, Meister asserted that City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway lives outside Baltimore while representing its Seventh Electoral District, in violation of the Baltimore City Charter. As support for these allegations, Meister relied on a sworn statement signed by Conaway and homestead property tax exemption records that identify her Randallstown, Md., home as her principal residence.
Alleging that she has had difficulty sleeping and dealing with others, and became short-tempered and ill because of the stress and distress the column caused, Conaway sued Meister and the owners of the site. Meister filed a motion to dismiss the suit under the state anti-SLAPP statute. (The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court letter brief in support of Meister’s motion.)
At a hearing on the motion, Conaway announced she was dropping the suit because she had, in fact, signed a document stipulating that the Randallstown address was her primary residence for tax purposes. Her lawyer told the judge the councilwoman signed the document by mistake years ago and did not see it again until after filing the lawsuit in May, although Baltimore County property tax records are available online.
Although Meister was represented for free, he still incurred court costs, though he said the greater expense was the threat to free speech, a “vital aspect of American life.”
“When I first heard about this, it was May 10, and they didn’t serve me until June 1. From May 10 to June 1, the burden was ‘Are they going to serve me? I’ve got to find a lawyer, everyone is telling me to find a lawyer,’” Meister said in a telephone interview shortly after the hearing. “It took away from seeing family of mine, I had to talk to lawyers on the phone instead of going to an event, little things like that. . . . Once I was served, I really had to be careful, because I knew it was real. I had to be careful about what I wrote. I realized that was part of what they were trying to do here. I just kept thinking, ‘I have to be quiet.’”
As such, Meister said he hopes to pressure the Maryland General Assembly to amend the state anti-SLAPP statute to provide more protection to successful defendants by allowing them to recover costs and attorney fees.
“A SLAPP suit is a desperate attempt by a powerful person to silence a dissenting voice,” he said. “It is an abuse of the legal system that should not go unpunished. There should be meaningful penalties for SLAPP suits in Maryland so others do not attempt to chill free speech in this way in the future.”
As the Maryland law indicates, the procedures required and protections provided under anti-SLAPP statutes vary among states. In addition to those mentioned above, other common provisions include expedited appellate review of orders denying motions to dismiss and limits on discovery while the court considers a motion to dismiss under the anti-SLAPP law.
Common to all anti-SLAPP statutes, however, is their intent to provide a quick and painless dismissal of meritless claims based on the exercise of the rights of free speech or petition before they amass a mountain of attorney fees that forces those speaking out about matters of public concern into silence. Without the legislative remedy, speech about important issues often remains chilled, anti-SLAPP advocates in those jurisdictions say.
“I’ve had more than one client back out of a case or not take an appeal because they were served with one of these [frivolous] suits, even though it was baseless,” said Florida environmental attorney LaHart, referring to clients’ challenges of various land developers’ actions.