WASHINGTON, Nov. 14 – A group of 19 major news organizations has filed a court brief supporting rapid appeals under a District of Columbia law aimed at protecting public debate. The law, known as an “anti-SLAPP” statute, affects a libel lawsuit by climate scientist Michael Mann against the Competitive Enterprise Institute, National Review magazine, columnist Mark Steyn, and technology analyst Rand Simberg.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 18 other major press entities - including the Society of Professional Journalists, The Washington Post, Dow Jones, E.W. Scripps, the McClatchy Company, the National Press Club, POLITICO, NBC Universal Media, Time Inc., and the Tribune Company – Wednesday filed an amicus brief that supports the defendants’ right to immediately appeal a lower court ruling in the case. That ruling denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit under the District’s 2010 Anti-SLAPP Act.
SLAPP is an acronym for Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation – a type of lawsuit aimed at silencing public policy advocates through litigation. The District’s Anti-SLAPP Act provides for quickly dismissing such lawsuits if the plaintiff does not show a high likelihood of success. The defendants in the Mann lawsuit moved to have their case dismissed under the law, but their motion was denied. The amicus brief takes no position on the underlying merits of the Mann lawsuit but contends that defendants should be able to quickly appeal that ruling before the case moves forward.
Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, sued CEI, National Review, Steyn, and Simberg, accusing them of defaming him by running commentaries in 2012 that harshly criticized his research. The pieces drew comparisons between a Penn State investigation into Mann’s research and the school's not-so-thorough investigation of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted of child molestation.
“We’re extremely encouraged by the filing of this amicus brief,” said Sam Kazman, CEI General Counsel. “Given the incredibly extensive journalistic background of the organizations that signed onto it, the brief demonstrates the major First Amendment implications of what might otherwise sound like a dry procedural dispute. As the amicus brief makes clear, anti-SLAPP laws are increasingly important in protecting open debate, and that protection is easily lost if lower court rulings under these laws cannot be quickly appealed.”
As explained in the brief, media organizations have a major interest in ensuring that anti-SLAPP statutes remain effective tools in protecting free speech. The D.C. anti-SLAPP law is one of about two dozen such laws across the country.