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Web site defamation suit against professor dismissed

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Web site defamation suit against professor dismissed

  • A Louisiana law that weeds out suits seeking to silence public speech applies to a Web site that criticized a university.

May 29, 2003 — An economics professor’s allegedly defamatory Internet postings are protected speech under a state law that makes pursuing frivolous defamation suits difficult, a Louisiana appeals court ruled on May 16.

The Shreveport, La., court dismissed the suit against former University of Louisiana at Monroe professor John Scott, who had maintained an anonymous Web site dubbed the “Truth at ULM” that criticized the university administration, court documents said. Richard Baxter, the university’s former vice president for external affairs, sued Scott for several online postings, including one calling Baxter the “Vice-President of Excremental Affairs.”

The decision is the first to apply a Louisiana law protecting First Amendment freedoms to a Web site publisher, Scott’s attorney Michael Rhymes said. The law, known as an “anti-SLAPP” law, screens claims that lack merit and would chill participation in public issues, the court said. SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”

“We believe that publishing statements relating to matters of public interest on a Web site is an exercise of one’s constitutional right of free speech,” the appeals court wrote.

Louisiana’s anti-SLAPP law provides for payment of a defendant’s attorney fees and for dismissal early in the litigation process before the expensive discovery or investigatory phase of case begins.

The statute requires the defendant to first establish that the speech is about a public matter. Then the plaintiff must show he is likely to prevail, without the benefit of discovery. If the plaintiff fails to establish the strength of his claim, the court strikes the complaint and dismisses the case.

“It makes the plaintiff come forward at a very early stage — it puts a real brake on discovery,” Rhymes said. “With the anti-SLAPP statute, the defendant can seriously limit the amount of discovery that goes forward and that keeps the cost of the lawsuit down.”

Baxter, now a mass communications professor, said he is appealing the decision because the parties notified the appeals court of settlement before the ruling. The appeal does not challenge the interpretation of the anti-SLAPP statute, though Baxter said the court should have considered that Scott’s Web site ignored traditional media standards such as fair comment.

The appeals court ruling reversed a trial court decision that would have allowed Baxter to pursue the defamation claim. As part of the settlement, Scott expressed regret for any anguish caused to Baxter and Scott retracted statements based on information he said he later learned was untrue.

At least 15 states have anti-SLAPP statues, according to information compiled by the New York-based Libel Defense Resource Center. Many of the statutes were enacted in the last decade.

In March, California appeals courts in Sacramento and San Diego upheld using the state’s anti-SLAPP law to strike defamation complaints against a TV station and a newspaper.

In Lake Shastina, Calif., former members of a community water board and an elections officer had sued the Siskiyou Daily News of Yreka for articles that appeared in the “Letters & Opinions” section of the newspaper.

In San Diego, a laser eye surgeon sued KSWB after the station aired a story questioning whether low price eye surgery risked patients’ health. Both the TV station and the newspaper won attorneys’ fees.

(Baxter v. Scott; Media counsel: Michael Rhymes, Monroe, La.; Bare v. Siskiyou Daily News; Global Laser Vision Medical Centers, Inc. v KSWB, Inc.) KH

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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