By Washington Newspaper Publishers Association
On July 25, a new law takes effect in Washington to defend against lawsuits aimed at chilling First Amendment rights.
The bill protects people from “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation,” known as SLAPP suits. The classic SLAPP scenario is a libel lawsuit filed against the press, designed not to obtain legitimate relief but to chill the publishers’ and reporters’ free speech rights. Washington is the 34th state along with Washington, D.C., with a law that provides effective anti-SLAPP protections.
Anti-SLAPP laws are designed to enable targets of these abusive lawsuits to secure early dismissals, with expensive discovery blocked and reasonable attorneys’ fees awarded by court order when the case is dismissed.
The new law applies to any lawsuit targeting the “exercise of the right of freedom of speech or of the press, the right to assemble or petition, or the right of association, guaranteed by the United States Constitution or Washington state Constitution, on a matter of public concern.”
In addition, the law includes a reminder that the law should be “broadly construed” to protect these important constitutional rights, and also that “consideration must be given to the need to promote uniformity of the law . . . among states that enact it.”
Washington adopted the law using the Uniform Public Expression Protection Act (UPEPA). UPEPA is one of many uniform state laws proposed by the Uniform Law Commission. The ULC provides states with nonpartisan, well-conceived and well-drafted legislation that brings clarity and stability to critical areas of state statutory law. The ULC voted to approve UPEPA, a model anti-SLAPP law, in July 2020.
State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, the Seattle Democrat who chairs the Senate Law and Justice Committee, is one of the state’s Uniform Law Commissioners and he is strongly committed to the benefits of the uniform law process.
As a result, even before the legislative session began, Sen. Pedersen started the ball rolling with a pre-filed bill in December 2020, and scheduled an early committee hearing where Rowland Thompson of Allied Daily Newspapers and Bruce Johnson of Davis Wright Tremaine testified in support of the proposed law. Thompson and Johnson were both strong behind-the-scenes advocates for the law, meeting with legislators and convincing them of the law’s merits.
Also active was Lane Shetterly, an Oregon lawyer and former legislator who chairs the ULC committee responsible for coordinating UPEPA enactments across the United States.
In the end the bill had solid support from Republican legislators as well. The prime sponsor of SSB 5009 was Sen. Mike Padden, a Spokane Republican. The Senate vote was 48-0.
The new law fills a gap in Washington state law after the Washington Supreme Court struck down an anti-SLAPP law in 2015. That law was found to be inconsistent with Washington’s Civil Rules.
The Washington Newspaper Publishers Association (WNPA) is a nonprofit organization that represents the interested of weekly and small daily newspapers in the state. This article originally appeared in The Washington Newspaper, a trade publication of the WNPA.