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Stabosz v. Friedman

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  1. Libel and Privacy

Court: Indiana Court of Appeals

Date Filed: July 29, 2022

Background: In February 2021, Shaw Friedman, County Attorney for LaPorte County, Indiana, filed a defamation lawsuit against Timothy Stabosz, the county auditor. In the complaint, Friedman claimed that Stabosz made public comments falsely accusing him of corruption.

Stabosz sought to dismiss the lawsuit under Indiana’s anti-SLAPP law. Indiana, along with 31 other states and the District of Columbia, have adopted these laws to quickly dismiss SLAPPs, or strategic lawsuits against public participation. Powerful people and companies often use SLAPP lawsuits as a tool to silence criticism through expensive, baseless legal proceedings.

In his motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Stabosz argued that Friedman had failed to make any showing of actual malice, and that such a showing is required to defeat his motion to dismiss under Indiana’s anti-SLAPP statute. In other words, he claimed that Friedman did not put forth any evidence to show that Stabosz published the statements knowing that they were false or with “reckless disregard” for whether or not they were false.

The trial court denied Stabosz’s motion, holding that Friedman need not make any showing of actual malice to defeat the motion because the issue of actual malice was “not ripe for decision.” Stabosz appealed the decision to the Indiana Court of Appeals.

Our Position: The Indiana Court of Appeals should reverse the trial court’s decision and hold  that to survive a motion to dismiss under Indiana’s anti-SLAPP statute, a plaintiff must put forth sufficient contrary evidence to create a triable issue of material fact as to actual malice.

  • Anti-SLAPP statutes, including Indiana’s, protect and encourage the exercise of First Amendment freedoms by providing a vital mechanism for the prompt dismissal of lawsuits that threaten the rights of free speech and petition.
  • Indiana requires the actual malice standard of proof in defamation cases involving matters of public or general concern brought by both public figures and private individuals.
  • Requiring a sufficient showing of actual malice at the anti-SLAPP stage of a defamation lawsuit is an essential component of a court’s anti-SLAPP analysis in Indiana and around the country, and is essential to achieving the anti-SLAPP statute’s goal of protecting the exercise of First Amendment rights in connection with matters of public interest.
  • Once a defendant has made a prima facie showing that Indiana’s anti-SLAPP statute applies and the act or omission complained of was taken in good faith and with a reasonable basis in law, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to put forth sufficient contrary evidence to create a triable issue of fact as to essential elements of the claim—including actual malice.

Michael Wilkins at Broyles Kight & Ricafort, PC served as the media coalition’s local counsel for this friend-of-the-court brief.

Quote: “The significance of this case extends well beyond the individual actors involved. The lower court’s interpretation of Indiana’s anti-SLAPP statute, if accepted, would undermine the statute’s effectiveness at protecting free speech and public participation.”

Related: Reporters Committee attorneys frequently advocate for strong anti-SLAPP statutes across the country to ensure the protection of free speech. To see what anti-SLAPP laws look like from state to state, consult our Anti-SLAPP Legal Guide.