A bill that would have substantially reformed Maryland's law against strategic lawsuits against public participation, or "SLAPPs," was defeated in the state Senate yesterday by a 25-21 vote.
S.B. 221 would have provided a number of substantial revisions to the law, including removing the requirement that lawsuits be brought in "bad faith" to qualify as SLAPPs, creating clear procedural rules for how to dispose of SLAPPs, and clearly defining what kind of conduct is protected by the law.
Anti-SLAPP laws are designed to provide a quick and efficient way to dispose of meritless lawsuits that are brought because of constitutionally protected activity, which could be financially ruinous to defendants if they were forced to fully litigate them, according to the Reporters Committee's guide, SLAPP Stick.
"We're very disappointed, and we'll try again next year," said Jack Murphy, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, who lobbied for the bill.
Under Maryland law, a defendant seeking to have a lawsuit dismissed as a SLAPP is required to show that the plaintiff brought the lawsuit in "bad faith," meaning that the plaintiff knew that the lawsuit was without merit and brought it for an improper purpose, such as intimidation.
The proposed revisions, among other things, would have removed this requirement, requiring a defendant to show only that the lawsuit arose out of a "written or oral statement" made in connection with an issue being considered by a government body, made to the public on an issue of public concern, or was otherwise constitutionally protected speech. They would not have had to show that the plaintiff brought the suit intentionally for an improper purpose.
"The bad faith requirement weakens the law to the point of uselessness," Murphy said.
Once a defendant had made that showing, S.B. 221 would have required that the plaintiff then show that they had a probability of succeeding in the lawsuit. If the plaintiff failed to make that showing, the lawsuit would be dismissed.
The failed bill would have required that discovery — one of the most time consuming and costly parts of litigation — be put on hold while the court considered whether the lawsuit should be dismissed as a SLAPP.
An earlier version of the bill also would have required that a plaintiff whose lawsuit is dismissed as a SLAPP pay the defendant's attorney's fees, but that provision was removed in committee.
Maryland State Senator Brian Frosh, who introduced the bill and is chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, could not be reached for comment.
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· The First Amendment Handbook: Defenses — Anti-SLAPP statutes