JEFFERSON CITY – A family goes out to eat and the family members are dissatisfied with their meal. They leave a negative review online and forget about it.
Weeks later, they learn they are being sued by the restaurant for defamation. The lawsuit has no chance of success in court, and the restaurant owner knows that. Instead, they hope the family will apologize and remove the review rather than pay the court costs required to win the case.
This kind of legal action is known as a SLAPP, or a strategic lawsuit against public participation, and it was the scenario presented by Rep. Tony Lovasco, R-O’Fallon, at a hearing of the House Special Committee on Litigation Reform on Tuesday. SLAPP cases are often seen as a form of intimidation or censorship.
“The purpose is simply to make it as expensive as possible to continue expressing your First Amendment views,” Lovasco said.
Lovasco brought House Bill 900 before the committee, which he described as “anti-SLAPP.”
SLAPP cases not only impact families and individuals leaving negative reviews online, but they often also impact news organizations.
Curtis Varns is general manager of KMIZ, an ABC affiliate that serves the Columbia-Jefferson City market. Varns testified about a SLAPP lawsuit his station faced.
“I’ve seen firsthand what I think House Bill 900 could fix for us,” Varns said.
He further classified anti-SLAPP legislation as “critical for allowing journalists to do their work.”
The bill would require those filing lawsuits to file a “special motion” proving that their defamation claim has merit before the suit can proceed. It would also put in place a mechanism for defendants to recover court costs in state court, even if the initial suit took place in federal court.
Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty, voiced concern that this added “special motion” created a new “expensive layer” in the defamation suit process — increasing costs for defendants.
Lovasco responded that if a case is indeed a SLAPP, the process will end with the special motion and it will save them money. Additionally, he pointed to the bill’s mechanism for recovering court costs.
Ellebracht also questioned Lovasco on how many SLAPP cases actually occur in Missouri.
“Do we really need this?” Ellebracht said.
Lovasco said it is hard to tell how many cases occur because many end with an individual apologizing or deleting their statement without going to court. Regardless, he said stronger anti-SLAPP laws are necessary.
“As long as our current culture is encouraging these actions, we need legislation regardless of how often,” Lovasco said, specifically referencing the high-profile cases of former president Donald Trump, who filed lawsuits against news organizations that have been characterized as SLAPPs.