A bill that protects against free speech-chilling lawsuits by strengthening New York’s anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) law, was spotlighted on Thursday by a Manhattan state senator in a rainy Times Square this morning.
State Senator Brad Hoylman, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held a press conference on Thursday under a billboard on West 44th Street and Broadway that attacks President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband that purports to quote Jared Kushner saying,” [New York] is going to suffer and that’s their problem.”
The billboard was paid for by the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump conservative group, which must now defend a suit they call frivolous.
The press conference highlighted legislation (S.52A/A.5991A) authored by Hoylman and Assembly Member Helene Weinstein that protects against free the speech-chilling lawsuits by strengthening New York’s anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) law. Trump and Kushner threatened to sue OutFront Media, the billboard company, over the ad, “a textbook example of how the ultra wealthy can use lawsuits to stifle free speech,” Hoylman said.
“The Trump family has weaponized the threat of meritless lawsuits against those who would criticize them for decades,” Hoylman said. “Strategic lawsuits against public participation — or SLAPP suits — are an abuse of our legal system that are intended to harass, intimidate, and bankrupt journalists, advocates, community organizers, and engaged citizens for exercising their constitutionally-protected right to free speech. Earlier this year, the New York State Legislature ‘SLAPPed back’ by passing legislation I sponsored to significantly strengthen and expand our state’s anti-SLAPP protections.”
Daniel Novack, Esq., Co-Chair of the New York State Bar Association Committee on Media Law, expressed support for the bill, saying “Free speech isn’t free when the wealthy and powerful weaponize the courts to punish truthful reporting and criticism. Expansion of Anti-SLAPP is urgently needed to safeguard our First Amendment rights.”
Michael McKee, Treasurer of TenantsPAC and a defendant in a SLAPP lawsuit brought by the real estate industry, said it is nearly impossible for smaller organizations to defend against rich opponents.
“The landlords sued me and my organization for $40 million two years ago, hoping to silence my advocacy for tenants and limit my organization’s ability to support the candidates we choose,” McKee said. “That didn’t work. They continued the lawsuit in 2019, hoping to use the courts and threats of financial ruin to block our efforts to win a historic strengthening and expansion of the tenant protection laws. That didn’t work either. They are continuing the lawsuit even after the legislature passed the Hoylman-Weinstein anti-SLAPP bill. This is sheer harassment, which this bill will prevent from happening to other organizers and advocates in future.”
The New York State Senate passed S.52A/A.5991A in July, legislation authored by Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein and Senator Brad Hoylman that will protect New Yorkers from SLAPPs: Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. This legislation would protect the First Amendment rights of New Yorkers and prevent the rich and powerful from abusing our legal system to silence their critics.
Currently, New York’s anti-SLAPP statute is only used rarely, due to its narrow scope; approximately 30 states, including California, Texas, Nevada and Oklahoma, have anti-SLAPP statutes that are stronger. Hoylman and Weinstein’s legislation expands on the existing statute by covering speech (or other lawful First Amendment conduct) related to an issue of public interest. If a defendant’s speech or activity falls under the protection of the newly-broadened statute, judges will have the ability to dismiss these cases and require the entity who brought the meritless lawsuit to cover the defendant’s legal fees.
Hoylman said the bill was passed at a time when advocates and journalists are under attack—both in the United States and across the globe. President Trump’s campaign has filed a SLAPP suit against a Wisconsin television station that aired an advertisement critical of President Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis; the campaign has taken similar action against New York-based news outlets, such as the New York Times, that publish criticism of the president.
Leaders say Governor Andrew Cuomo is leaning towards support of the bill.