Protection for free speech rights in Georgia just got a lot stronger.

A SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuit is intended to censor, intimidate or silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism. Anti-SLAPP legislation is intended to address this abuse of free speech rights.

Georgia’s current anti-SLAPP statute was enacted in 1996 but was fairly narrow in scope, applying only to lawsuits involving statements made to government bodies or in connection with issues under consideration in official proceedings. It also contained a cumbersome verification requirement, which precludes application of the statute in federal courts. See The Royalty Network v. Harris, 756 F.3d 1351 (11th Cir. 2014).

But a new anti-SLAPP measure, HB 513, was passed by the Legislature this year and was signed into law April 26 by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. The push for a strengthened anti-SLAPP law was led by the entertainment industry, which increasingly has used Georgia for film and television production. Passage of the measure helps make Georgia attractive to the industry. HB513 would improve Georgia’s existing anti-SLAPP statute in several ways:

 ·         First, it broadens the scope of the statute to encompass “Any written or oral statement or writing or petition made in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest or concern” and “Any … conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of petition or free speech in connection with a public issue or an issue of public concern.” This language was borrowed from the California anti-SLAPP statute §425.16(e)(3)-(4), ensures that typical claims involving entertainment content would be covered by the statute.

·         Second, it contains a mandatory award of attorneys’ fees to the prevailing moving party on an anti-SLAPP motion;

·         Third, it provides that the denial of anti-SLAPP motion is immediately appealable; and

·         Fourth, it eliminates the verification procedure, which should help ensure that the statute applies in federal court.

What this means for media clients, and for anyone exercising their free speech rights in Georgia, is that deep pockets plaintiffs will have a much tougher time sustaining a groundless defamation claim. It is often that case in libel claims that plaintiffs will use the courts to chill speech and/or push defendants to settle just to avoid lengthy and expensive litigation. With the new anti-SLAPP measure, all discovery, with the possible exception of public figure discovery on the question of actual malice, will be stayed once an anti-SLAPP motion is filed, until that issue is decided.

A group of Georgia media lawyers and legislative media advocates worked together to draft and advance the bill. The attorney group included: Cynthia Counts of Duane Morris, Peter Canfield of Jones Day, and Tom Clyde and Lesli Gaither of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. Media advocates included Ben Sheffner of the Motion Picture Association of America, Tom Harrold of Miller & Martin for MPAA, Michael Wall of Comcast, and Arthur “Skin” Edge for Turner Communications.

The new law takes effect July 1.