Haynes and Boone Secures Historic Anti-SLAPP Law Win in Federal Court Confirming that State Anti-SLAPP Statutes Create Substantive First Amendment Rights
As more states adopt Anti-SLAPP legislation, more federal courts must decide whether such laws create a substantive right that must be applied by a federal court in a case in which federal jurisdiction is based on diversity of citizenship. In a major boost to the effectiveness of state Anti-SLAPP laws, Haynes and Boone secured a precedent setting victory in federal court when, in the face of timely filed objections, a federal court in Texas applied the newly enacted Texas Anti-SLAPP statute, holding for the first time that the Texas statute created a substantive right.
The suit arose from reports aired by KVOA Communications, d/b/a KRIS Communications ("KRIS") in February and March, 2014 with respect to a Texas school district's investigation of a teacher accused of inappropriate behavior with a student. In the course of its reporting, KRIS uncovered information that the same teacher-coach had previously been arrested for telephone harassment, stalking and indecent exposure. In all, the station's investigation uncovered more than a decade of criminal allegations against the teacher-coach, who had been permitted to move from school district to school district, keeping his license to teach and being allowed to voluntarily resign.
In the wake of KRIS' reports, the teacher-coach filed a defamation suit seeking more than $4 million in damages from KRIS. Haynes and Boone moved to dismiss the complaint on grounds that the lawsuit had been filed out of retaliation for what KRIS broadcast and the plaintiff could not establish evidence of his claim. As such, the claim violated Texas' Anti-SLAPP law, which prohibits lawsuits brought in retaliation for an exercise of one's right to free speech, press, association or petition.
The teacher-coach opposed KRIS' motion, asserting that the Anti-SLAPP statute is a procedural rule in conflict with federal law. U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of the Southern District of Texas disagreed, stating that procedural features of the law "are designed to prevent substantive consequences—the impairment of First Amendment rights and the time and expense of defending against litigation that has no demonstrable merit under state law regarding defamation."
In applying the Anti-SLAPP statute, the Court found that the broadcasts aired by KRIS involved a "matter of public interest because they addressed allegations against a teacher who had been accused of criminal acts of a sexual nature involving young females, some of whom were his students." The Court found the matters reported on involved health and safety, community well-being, and—with respect to public educational institutions, mandatory primary education, and certification of teachers—the government. The Court also found that the KRIS broadcasts were true or substantially true and privileged as a matter of law under the fair report/fair comment privilege.
The ruling represents a significant victory for those who exercise their First Amendment rights and are sued in federal court out of retaliation for doing so.
Haynes and Boone's Laura Lee Prather served as lead counsel for KRIS in the action and was lead author of the Texas Anti-SLAPP statute.
The case is Christopher Williams v. Cordillera Communications, Inc., et. al., ___ F. Supp. 2d___, 2014 WL 2611743 (S.D. Tex. 2014)