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D.C. District Court applies local anti-SLAPP statute, dismisses defamation claim against Foreign Policy

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A federal judge dismissed a defamation claim by the Palestinian Authority leader’s son against a Washington, D.C.-based magazine and applied…

A federal judge dismissed a defamation claim by the Palestinian Authority leader’s son against a Washington, D.C.-based magazine and applied the district's anti-SLAPP statute in federal court.

The case before District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan on Friday involved a defamation suit by Yasser Abbas, son of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, regarding statements made about him in Foreign Policy magazine in an article written by Jonathan Schanzer, who was also named in the suit. The magazine story asked, “Are the sons of the Palestinian president growing rich off their father’s system?” and “Have they enriched themselves at the expense of regular Palestinians — and even U.S. taxpayers?”

The judge ruled that questions such as these are not facts and therefore cannot defame anyone.

“That Mr. Abbas would prefer that readers do not answer the questions in the affirmative is not sufficient to support his defamation claim,” Judge Sullivan wrote.

The judge also ruled that the story concerned an issue of public interest, in part because Abbas is a limited public figure. Because of this and because it was not likely Abbas would win his defamation claim — the two criteria under D.C.’s anti-SLAPP statute — the judge dismissed the case.

An anti-SLAPP statute is an avenue for quickly dismissing a defamation case before legal costs skyrocket. States started passing the laws when they realized people were essentially using expensive litigation to bully their critics into silence. Even if there was no merit behind the defamation case and the defendant was ultimately victorious, the expense the defendant had to pay in legal fees was in itself punishment for speaking out — and had the deleterious effect of silencing others, as well.

The D.C. anti-SLAPP statute, and others like it, permit a court to dismiss a case at its inception if the speech was on an issue of public interest and if the plaintiff is ultimately not likely to win the defamation claim.

Conflicting rulings have come from the federal District Court in Washington, D.C., regarding the statute’s applicability in federal court, with one judge (in 3M Co. v. Boulter) saying DC’s anti-SLAPP statute cannot apply in federal court and others (in Boley v. Atlantic Monthly Group and Farah v. Esquire Magazine) saying that it can.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has not yet decided on the issue.

Currently, there is no federal anti-SLAPP statute.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· SLAPP Stick: Fighting frivolous lawsuits against journalists