First amendment experts are praising a proposed federal anti-SLAPP bill currently before a U.S. House subcommittee.
SLAPP, which stands for "strategic lawsuit against public participation," is a way for litigants to silence critics by threatening them with costly defamation lawsuits.
Currently, 26 states including Lousiana have anti-SLAPP laws on the books.
Jim Copland, the Director of the Center for Legal Policy at the Manhattan Institute, said that anti-SLAPP statutes could help curb frivolous litigation.
"Under U.S. rules and federal procedures, you don't have to establish your case to get power of discovery over a defendant," he said. "Discovery can cost an enormous amount of money."
Copland said that, even when defendants know that they could win a lawsuit, they still have to pay their own legal fees if they get sued in a state without anti-SLAPP laws.
"It creates a killing effect on free speech," he said. "Folks are going to be hesitant to criticize other people. Anti-SLAPP is an effort to prevent these shakedown lawsuits."
First Amendment attorney Mary Allen of New Orleans said that Louisiana's anti-SLAPP laws have helped protect people's right to free speech.
"It's very important to protect peoples' free speech rights to speak up and challenge authority," she said. "It gives ordinary people a sort of leverage to fight back against big companies."
Louisiana's anti-SLAPP measure was enacted in 1999 and states that lawsuits "arising from any act of that person in furtherance of the person's right of petition or free speech under the United States or Louisiana Constitution in connection with a public issue shall be subject to a special motion to strike." The Louisiana law also stipulates that plaintiffs who lose their cases must reimburse the defendant's legal fees.
The anti-SLAPP measures also help ensure freedom of the press. In 2002, the Louisiana Court of Appeal upheld the constitutionality of Louisiana's anti-SLAPP statues in a case where a police officer sued several news agencies after his arrest by the New Orleans Police Department.
The NOPD issued a news release with details of the arrest, which were reported by New Orleans' four major television news outlets and the Times-Picayune. The Louisiana Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the press and that the plaintiff was responsible for the defendants' legal fees.
Copland said he'd like to see a similar system in the U.S. as there is in Europe, where anti-SLAPP laws are the norm, in order to prevent lawsuits being filed with the intent to silence a party with the threat of costly legal fees. He said those statutes are necessary to protect a person's freedom of speech.
"The first amendment doesn't protect you from getting sued," he said. "Anti-SLAPP laws are an affirmative legislative protection of first amendment values and principles."