House passes Padden Anti-SLAPP legislation

Uniform Public Expression Protection Act would restore critical free-speech protections

The House of Representatives voted 97-1 on Friday to approve Sen. Mike Padden’s measure to help protect citizens, whistleblowers and members of the news media from frivolous lawsuits aimed at stifling freedom of speech and the discussion of legitimate public issues.

“At a time when civil debate of public issues is more important than ever, we cannot allow people to use expensive lawsuits as a weapon to silence or bankrupt others,” said Padden, R-Spokane Valley. “The solid House vote in support of this legislation sends a strong message that state lawmakers are united in defending the First Amendment in Washington.”

Substitute Senate Bill 5009 addresses an important free-speech concern created by the May 28, 2015, ruling in the case of Davis v Cox, in which members of the Olympia Food Co-op’s board of directors were sued by five co-op members over the board’s decision to boycott Israeli goods. The defendants argued that the action was an illegal Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) that should be dismissed as an attempt to chill the board’s public statements on an issue of public interest. The state Supreme Court had rejected this claim and found the anti-SLAPP statute to be unconstitutional.

As amended by the House, SSB 5009 would reinstate the anti-SLAPP law, the Uniform Public Expression Protection Act, permitting a special motion in court for expedited relief against legal claims over public expression and allowing a court to award costs, litigation expenses, and reasonable attorneys’ fees for prevailing parties.

“The right to petition the court to address legitimate legal disputes is an important principle that should be protected,” Padden added, “but our courts should never be used as a means to deny citizens their fundamental First Amendment free-speech rights or silence victims from exposing criminal activities.”

Several citizens and members of the press testified at the hearing for the bill that the anti-SLAPP law is a vital tool used to protect free speech.

The measure, which received the support of both the Uniform Law Commission and the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, now returns to the Senate for its consideration of House changes to the bill.