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This week, Governor Murphy signed into law Senate Bill S2802, known as the “Uniform Public Expression Protection Act,” (the “Act”) adding New Jersey to the list of over 30 states that have adopted Anti-SLAPP legislation.
A “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation” (“SLAPP lawsuit”) is a strategic maneuver wherein a civil suit is brought against an individual or organization who has been communicating to the government or the public on a matter of public concern. The rub is that in SLAPP suits, the lawsuit lacks any true legal claims, and its actual purpose is to use the prospect of defending a lengthy and expensive lawsuit to deter the plaintiff’s critics from criticizing the plaintiff on a topic of public interest. Typical SLAPP suits involve meritless claims for defamation, business torts, abuses of process, malicious prosecution, conspiracy, constitutional or civil rights violations, or nuisance.
SLAPP suits raise freedom of speech concerns because they discourage legitimate criticism and debate on public issues. As a result, many states have passed anti-SLAPP legislation that makes it easier for SLAPP suit defendants to have an otherwise baseless SLAPP case dismissed at the outset of a lawsuit. With the passing of the “Uniform Public Expression Protection Act,” New Jersey has joined the ranks of other states with Anti-SLAPP laws.
The Uniform Public Expression Protection Act provides an expedited motion and process to dismiss a SLAPP suit by enabling a defendant in an alleged SLAPP case to bring a motion to dismiss the claim as a meritless SLAPP action. While the court considers whether the suit is a SLAPP suit, most other proceedings between the parties are stayed pending the outcome of the motion.
The Act applies to civil actions based on the defendant’s communication in governmental proceedings, communication on issues under consideration in such proceedings, or their exercise of constitutional rights related to matters of public concern. The Act does not apply to suits against governmental entities or their employees acting in an official capacity, suits related to public health or safety enforcement by governmental entities or their employees, or suits against defendants engaged in selling/leasing goods/services that arises out of a communication related to the defendant’s sale/lease or the goods/services, excluding certain types of expressive/artistic works.
The Act also provides for attorney’s fees and costs to a successful anti-SLAPP action. On the flip side, if an anti-SLAPP action is found to be frivolous or filed solely with the intent of delaying the proceeding, the party bringing the anti-SLAPP action can be ordered to pay legal fees to the plaintiff.
The Act states that it is to be broadly construed and applied to protect freedom of speech and the press, the right to assembly and petition, and the right of associations.
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