On Thursday, the Citizen Media Law Project (CMLP) joined the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM) and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association in submitting an amicus curiae brief urging the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to reverse a lower court’s decision interpreting the state’s anti-SLAPP legislation. Representing CMLP, Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic co-authored the brief.
The brief was filed in support of Freda Hollander, a party in Fustolo v. Hollander, No. SJC-10485. The lawsuit involves allegations of defamation based on articles Hollander wrote for the Regional Review, a free local newspaper serving the North End community in Boston. The articles in question reported on development activities planned by plaintiff Steven Fustolo and meetings of community groups that opposed his plans. In response to Fustolo’s lawsuit, Hollander sought dismissal of the case under the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP law, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 231, § 59H.
The Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute protects a party from strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) by allowing that party to have a case dismissed at an early stage in the litigation and to recoup attorneys’ fees if the lawsuit is based on his or her “exercise of [the] right of petition under the constitution of the United States or of the commonwealth.” Although the statute covers a wide scope of petitioning activities and parties, the Massachusetts Superior Court denied Hollander’s motion, ruling that she was outside of the scope of the statute because she was a paid employee of the Regional Review.
In the brief, amici argue that the Superior Court’s ruling “ignore[s] the plain language of the anti-SLAPP statute, and, if allowed to stand, would undermine the legislature’s intent – to protect a broad array of petitioning activities and encourage community members to inform themselves about and be engaged in the democratic process.” It also cautions of the chilling effect the Superior Court’s ruling could have on the activities of community organizations that rely on paid staff, whether news media entities or advocacy groups.
Cyberlaw clinical student Lee Baker worked with CMLP to articulate a citizen media perspective in the brief. “The project posed a unique challenge, as we sought to reflect the concerns of journalists as well as advocacy organizations,” Baker said. “Both deserve broad protections under the anti-SLAPP law, and we hope that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recognizes the broad ramifications of the Superior Court’s decision and crafts a decision consistent with the democratic principles underlying the law.”
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case on November 2.