A Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (“SLAPP”) is a term for a legal action that is of little merit but is filed anyway for the purpose of stopping someone from engaging in (usually constitutionally protected) speech by burdening them with the costs of a lawsuit. In December of 2010, the D.C. Council passed (with our support) an Anti-SLAPP Act that provides a special procedure for people engaged in advocacy on public interest issues to have a court dismiss SLAPP suits quickly. This Act also secured the right to file a “special motion to quash” to prevent the opposing party from discovering the identity of a person anonymously engaging in such advocacy.
In this case, a lawyer sued an anonymous blogger in D.C. Superior Court claiming defamation. The blogger (Doe) filed a special motion to quash under the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act, but the court denied it, ordering him or her to disclose his or her identity. The blogger appealed to the D.C. Court of Appeals. The court issued an order to show cause why the appeal should not be dismissed as premature, since the case was not finished in the lower court. In March 2013, we filed an amicus brief to show why appeals from denials of anti-SLAPP motions to quash should be immediately appealable.
The court then ordered briefing on the merits, and in October 2013, we filed a second amicus brief, this time jointly with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the American Society of News Editors, the Digital Media Law Project, Gannett Co., the McClatchy Company, the National Press Photographers Association, and the Washington Post. Our brief focused on the proper meaning of the “public interest,” “likelihood of success,” and “commercial interest” terms of the D.C. anti-SLAPP statute, and argued that Doe’s identity should be protected. In May 2014, the court ruled that it could hear the appeal and that the Superior Court erred in refusing to grant the motion to quash.
On remand, the motion to quash was granted and the plaintiff dismissed her lawsuit. John Doe then moved for attorneys’ fees under the Anti-SLAPP Act’s fee-shifting provision. The Superior Court denied the motion and Doe again appealed. In September 2015, we filed a third amicus brief, this time supporting the award of fees in order to discourage SLAPP suits.
In March 2016, the court held that a person who successfully moves to quash a subpoena in a SLAPP suit is presumptively entitled to attorney’s fees. The same rule will almost certainly apply to a person who successfully moves to dismiss a lawsuit as a SLAPP. The case was remanded to the Superior Court to determine the amount of fees. In November 2016, the court awarded Doe’s counsel more than $400,000 in fees.