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With the passing of the “Uniform Public Expression Protection Act” (S-2802/A-4393) this month, the New Jersey legislature has reaffirmed its dedication to preserving freedom of speech in the state.

The Act is designed to protect people from Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (“SLAPP”), which are meritless civil lawsuits filed by powerful entities and individuals solely to discourage legitimate criticism of them. The Anti-SLAPP legislation combats SLAPP suits by empowering defendants in an alleged SLAPP suit to file a motion requiring the plaintiff to demonstrate that the lawsuit has a legitimate basis. The suit is then put on hold while the court expeditiously decides whether the suit is a SLAPP suit. If the court determines that the case was brought solely to quash the legitimate exercise of free speech, the suit will be dismissed. In some cases, successful SLAPP suit defendants may be entitled to legal fees and costs. The Act also provides defendants with the right to appeal a judge’s refusal to dismiss an alleged SLAPP suit.

Prior to the passage of this legislation, powerful parties with deep pockets could silence activists, journalists, and other individuals speaking out on important public issues who criticized them. These powerful entities would simply file meritless lawsuits against their vocal detractors, forcing them to stop criticizing the plaintiff or face the prospect of defending a years-long and costly civil lawsuit. Often the mere threat of being forced to defend against such suits was enough to induce self-censorship by parties who would otherwise have spoken out on a matter of public concern.

This statute aims to fix that by removing SLAPP suits as weapon in the arsenal of powerful entities looking to curb legitimate criticism. Without the threat of a SLAPP suit, individuals in New Jersy should now feel more confident exercising their freedom of speech and speaking out on matters of public interest, even where this involves criticizing a powerful party. As First Assistant Attorney General Lyndsay V. Ruotolo said, “people should be able to speak their mind on the issues that matter most to them without the fear of becoming ensnared in an expensive, time-consuming lawsuit.”

Free speech is the cornerstone of a functional free society because the freedom to speak publicly about important issues is essential to addressing and solving these problems. Individuals who are hit with a suit they suspect is frivolous should immediately seek counsel to help them move to have the suit dismissed pursuant to this important new law.

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