A Florida bill that would revise the state’s narrow anti-SLAPP law to provide a greater level of protection for speakers against meritless lawsuits has passed both houses of the legislature and now awaits Gov. Rick Scott’s signature.
Florida’s anti-SLAPP law, Fla. Stat. § 768.295, currently only provides for the speedy dismissal of SLAPP suits when such frivolous suits are filed by government entities. In practice, "strategic lawsuits against public participation," or SLAPPs, are filed by a wide range of plaintiffs, with far more deleterious effects on speakers than just those suits brought by the government.
CS/HB 1041, the bill that has been presented to Governor Scott along with its companion bill CS/SB 1312, widens the scope of the Florida anti-SLAPP law to apply to any action by any type of plaintiff that involves the “exercise [of] the constitutional right of free speech in connection with a public issue.” That term is then defined as “any written or oral statement that is protected under applicable law and is made before a governmental entity in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a governmental entity, or is made in or in connection with a play, movie, television program, radio broadcast, audiovisual work, book, magazine article, musical work, news report, or other similar work.”
The new language would bring Florida’s law more in line with anti-SLAPP laws around the country that protect speakers, including members of the media, from having to engage in expensive, time-consuming litigation that is designed to chill the exercise of free speech. By suing reporters and critics for defamation and other speech-related claims—even when the speech is clearly protected as opinion or is not otherwise illegal—SLAPP plaintiffs force speakers to spend time and money defending themselves in court, or bully speakers into silence merely with the threat of a suit.
If the bill becomes law, the revised Florida anti-SLAPP law will protect speakers from meritless, speech-chilling suits by allowing them to file a motion for summary judgment, which is to be followed by a response from the plaintiff and a court hearing at the earliest possible time. The party that prevails on the motion may be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.
Anti-SLAPP laws around the country provide a remedy from SLAPP suits by allowing the person sued to make a motion to strike the case because it involves speech on a matter of public interest or concern. Other states’ laws feature provisions putting the burden of proof on the plaintiff to show a likelihood of success on their claim, thus providing a mechanism to end frivolous lawsuits aimed at stifling speech at an early stage. Fee-shifting provisions discourage SLAPP suits by providing for penalties for plaintiffs that wage such meritless suits. While the Florida law will not go as far as some of the most protective laws on the books, the extension of SLAPP protection to a much wider class of speakers, not merely those sued by government entities, would be a significant achievement.