A bill modifying Nevada’s anti-SLAPP law, pushed by hotel and casino company Wynn Resorts, has made its way through the Nevada Senate Judiciary Committee and has been passed unanimously by the Senate. Though its proponents frame it as striking a balance between free speech and the right to petition, Senate Bill 444 essentially eviscerates the protections given to speakers under the anti-SLAPP law by modifying wording and key clauses that allow speakers to efficiently fight back against lawsuits intended to chill speech. If the state assembly also passes the bill and it is signed by the governor, speakers in that state will have real problems defending against these attacks without the help of what is currently one of the strongest anti-SLAPP laws in the nation.
Steve Wynn, who runs the company that owns casinos in Las Vegas and Macau, has tried in the past to punish those who criticize his practices by filing defamation suits against them. He recently lost one of these cases in California, where the judge dismissed his suit with prejudice. His representatives openly pushed for this bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Nevada's strong anti-SLAPP law serves as a deterrent against the filing of defamation and other speech-related suits that lack merit and are brought merely to burden the speaker with litigation, attempt to force retractions, and chill speech on matters of public interest or concern. Laws that protect against these so-called "strategic lawsuits against public participation" generally put the burden of proof on the bringer of the suit to show a likelihood of success and can also impose monetary penalties on those who bring frivolous suits. They are intended to protect important First Amendment rights.
Senate Bill 444 would render Nevada’s law much less effective. First, it would change the standard of proof for a plaintiff showing a likelihood of success from “clear and convincing evidence” to “prima facie evidence.” So in order to survive early dismissal, the plaintiff would only need to offer any evidence that at face value could support his claim, thus shifting the burden to the speaker-defendant to rebut that evidence. Placing the burden of proof on the plaintiff is a core protection of anti-SLAPP laws.
The bill also changes the definition of speech protected under the anti-SLAPP law from speech on matters of public interest to the narrower speech on issues of public concern. It reduces the time for a speaker-defendant to find counsel and file a motion against the SLAPP suit from 60 days to 20 days after the suit is filed. The bill removes the $10,000 penalty that can be levied against the unsuccessful SLAPP plaintiff and makes it easier for the court to find that the speaker-defendant should pay the fees of the plaintiff.
The Judiciary Committee of the Nevada State Assembly will hold a hearing on the bill on Friday.