BATON ROUGE — The Louisiana Senate passed a bill on March 20 to postpone any slander lawsuits filed against people who allegedly have been victims of sexual assault. If the House approves it, courts will be required to postpone any slander lawsuits filed against alleged sexual assault victims.

State Sen. J.P. Morrell (D-New Orleans), who sponsored the bill, said the reason he feels this action is needed is that wealthy perpetrators of sexual offenses often use this method to discourage victims from pursuing assault claims.

However, there are a few people who feel this may be going too far. State Sen. John Milkovich (D-Shreveport) said he is concerned about how this will affect people who are falsely accused of assault.

Elizabeth B. Carpenter, a New Orleans criminal defense attorney, told the Louisiana Record that she does not believe that the bill is too broad.

“I don’t think this bill is too broad in its construction,” she said. “The plaintiff's right to sue is preserved. The bill is simply staying the proceedings until all investigations are completed. Practically speaking, I don’t know any lawyer who wants to heavily litigate a case before an investigation is complete.”

Carpenter said the legislation could help counteract power differentials between the alleged perpetrators and alleged victims of sexual assault, which she said often dissuade victims from coming forward.

“I think this is a very progressive piece of legislation aiming to protect victims of sexual assault from being silenced by the power differentials between the involved parties that are frequently seen in these cases," she said. "As we have seen during the past year, perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault are often in a position of power over their victims. Therefore, I think that a law of this nature is necessary. For years, these power differentials have intimidated victims, thereby preventing them from coming forward."

Carpenter, however, did express some reservations about the last paragraph of the bill. 

“I don’t think it is necessary to achieve the legislative goal," she said. "It states... [that] ‘If the plaintiff in a claim for defamation… is a person against whom a bill of indictment has been made… there shall be a presumption that no defamation occurred.’ This directly contradicts the most basic tenant of criminal law that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. I understand that this law does not directly relate to criminal proceedings. Nevertheless, this paragraph suggests an automatic presumption of guilt and appears to serve as a way of discouraging plaintiffs from seeking relief.”

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