Citizen Media Law Project and Cyberlaw Clinic File Amicus Brief in Illinois SLAPP-suit matter

The Citizen Media Law Project, joined by the Public Participation Project, the Online News Association, and the Chicago Current, submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Illinois Supreme Court this week, urging the Court to reject two lower courts’ narrow interpretations of the state’s Anti-SLAPP statute. The statute, known as the Citizen Participation Act, allows defendants to secure quick dismissals and recover fees when faced with meritless lawsuits that threaten their ability to speak and petition the government.

Three students in Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic—Heather Casteel, Hank Greenberg, and David Jacobs—worked with the clinic’s Assistant Director, Christopher Bavitz, and CMLP’s David Ardia and Sam Bayard to draft the brief. They wrote the brief with the assistance of local counsel Julie Bauer and Lindsay Beyer at the law firm Winston & Strawn in Chicago. Both the clinic and the CMLP are based at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

The case – Wright Development Group LLC v. Walsh – involves defamation claims brought by a developer over statements made by an individual to a reporter at a public forum in Chicago. A trial court denied defendant Walsh’s motion to dismiss under the Citizen Participation Act, apparently because he made the statements at issue to a reporter and not to a government body. An intermediate appellate court refused to let Walsh appeal that ruling because, while the appeal was pending, the case had been dismissed on other grounds, thereby depriving him of an opportunity to recover legal fees under the Act. The case is now on appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The amicus coalition argued that the Walsh’s appeal should proceed, highlighting the history of Anti-SLAPP laws in Illinois and throughout the country and the importance of fee-shifting provisions. Such statutes are designed to discourage baseless and harassing litigation, in large part by awarding legal costs and fees to a SLAPP defendant. If defendants cannot pursue their Anti-SLAPP claims after the cases against them are dismissed on other grounds, the impact of the Citizen Participation Act could be undermined.

Amici also addressed the merits of the case, arguing that Walsh’s motion to dismiss under the Citizen Participation Act was wrongly denied. They drew the Court’s attention to the breadth of the Citizen Participation Act, which addresses a range of activities beyond direct petitioning activity, and to the fact that statements to the press are vital to public participation.

The Citizen Media Law Project, which began operations in May 2007, provides assistance, training, research, and other resources for individuals and organizations involved in online and citizen media. CMLP is working to build a community of lawyers, academics, and others who are interested in facilitating citizen participation in online media and protecting the legal rights of those engaged in speech on the Internet. For more information, visit http://www.dmlp.org/.