Jeffrey Pyle Discusses Consequences of Anti-SLAPP Decision for Writers and Journalists

In the Press · March 27, 2017

Partner Jeffrey Pyle of the Media and First Amendment Law Practice Group was recently quoted in two publications discussing the rights of writers and bloggers under a Massachusetts statute known as the anti-SLAPP law, which protects the public from “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.”  In a recent case, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of two bloggers, Cherri Foytlin and Karen Savage, who had written an article for The Huffington Post’s Green Blog about the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  The article asserted that ChemRisk, a scientific consulting firm hired by the oil company BP, had understated some of the harmful effects of the oil spill on cleanup workers. The article further suggested that the company had a history of inaccurate research on contamination.  ChemRisk sued Foytlin and Savage for defamation.

Foytlin and Savage argued that their article was protected under the anti-SLAPP law, which was passed to ensure early dismissal of lawsuits that are intended to silence people who speak out on issues being considered by the government.  Despite the fact that Foytlin and Savage were trying to influence pending court proceedings involving the spill, the trial court ruled against them on the ground that the statute only protects a person’s right to petition on her own behalf, not on behalf of third parties like cleanup workers.  On appeal, however, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed, finding that the concept of “petitioning” includes statements on behalf of the environment and those impacted by it.

“The ruling clarifies that one need not have a direct self-interest at stake in petitioning in order to be protected by the state,” Pyle explained in an article in Courthouse News.  “The ruling is also important because it makes clear that journalists who write opinionated articles are covered by the anti-SLAPP protections,” Pyle said.  Pyle highlights an important distinction made by the court in this case: opinion journalists or bloggers are likely protected under the anti-SLAPP law’s definition of “petitioning,” while objective journalists may not be.

In an article in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, Pyle notes that while the state’s anti-SLAPP law does not go as far as California’s, which has afforded protection to both opinion and non-opinion writing, this decision from the SJC means that Massachusetts op-ed writers can “breathe a little easier.”  Pyle also predicts that the next case might test whether anti-SLAPP protections extend to “an investigative journalist whose work does not state an opinion but is nonetheless reasonably likely to impel action on the part of the public.”

Click here to read Pyle’s thoughts.