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Texas bills would undermine anti-SLAPP law, harm journalists

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  1. Libel and Privacy

Update: Texas lawmakers failed to pass the legislation before the end of the 2023 legislative session.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 44 media organizations are urging Texas lawmakers to amend legislation that would seriously undermine a state law that allows for the quick dismissal of defamation lawsuits intended to silence criticism through expensive, baseless legal proceedings.

In a letter sent to the chair of the Texas House Committee on Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence on March 30, 2023, the media coalition expressed concerns about two bills making their way through the state legislature: HB 2781 and SB 896. The legislation would deny journalists and other targets of frivolous defamation lawsuits important protections under the Texas Citizen Participation Act, the state’s anti-SLAPP law.

The TCPA allows the courts to quickly dismiss meritless lawsuits designed to chill speech. Such meritless actions — so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP suits — are routinely filed by rich and powerful people to drown journalists and other critics in expensive legal proceedings and ultimately prevent speech they don’t like.

Under the proposed legislation, however, some litigants would be denied a stay pending appeal if their anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss is deemed by the trial court to be untimely, frivolous, or subject to an exemption.

“This would create an unfair and wasteful two-tiered system for appeals of anti-SLAPP motions under the Texas Citizen Participation Act,” the media coalition’s letter argues. “It would make it easier to force media outlets, journalists, or outspoken citizens into expensive and time-consuming discovery before an appeals court has a chance to determine whether any TCPA exemptions apply, whether the defendant followed the TCPA’s timeliness requirements, or whether the anti-SLAPP motion was frivolous.”

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.

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