EDITORIAL: Save SLAPP: Law must offer protection to those with valid criticism

Any law can be abused. Some laws protect people from those who would spread lies about them, but some abuse those laws by filing lawsuits against people who offer valid criticism and honest opinions.

Protections are strongest for private individuals. But because government officials set policy and famous people can influence it, the law allows greater criticisms against them. Still, since such people often have the resources, some file lawsuits that might be baseless, but will exact a financial toll on their critics.

The Texas Legislature is facing bills that seek to weaken the law that protects people from such nuisance lawsuits.

The bills reflect our current national dialog. Donald Trump, even before his election to the presidency, said he’d like to weaken libel laws to make it easier for public officials to sue critics, especially the news media. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently said he believed the court’s unanimous ruling in the New York Times vs. Sullivan case, which set the standards for defamation lawsuits, was incorrect and offered too much protection to free speech.

Just the threat of a lawsuit can be enough to deter critics. Even if case is without merit, the cost of litigation can bankrupt a critic.

Such cases have become so common that they’ve earned a nickname — strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP.

Our nation’s founders knew the importance of allowing alternative viewpoints. Their writings support the idea that the free exchange of ideas and full consideration of opposing viewpoints helps us develop the best policies.

The public has a right to offer frank evaluation,including criticism, of public officials’ performance of their duties. All those seeking elected office know, or should know, that criticism comes with the office.

State legislators in 2011 enacted a law allowing critics to recover the cost of defending themselves against baseless lawsuits. This newspaper and our parent company were beneficiaries of the law in 2017; a judge, after finding that a defamation suit had no merit, ordered the plaintiff to reimburse this company for its legal expenses.

That protection is even more crucial for a private individual who doesn’t have the resources to fight such a lawsuit.

House Bill 2730 seeks to weaken the anti-SLAPP provisions, and give people — and businesses — the freedom to file defamation lawsuits even if they know the criticism is truthful or valid. A restaurant could sue someone for posting a bad review of the food, or photo of roaches in the corners, on social media.