Defamation/SLAPP Suits

“Can I be sued for writing that?”

There is no ironclad protection against someone filing a lawsuit, no matter how frivolous. In the context of science, corporations or business associations have threatened to sue for defamation (libel or slander), claiming that –

  • False statements are made about their business or reputation which the speaker/writer knows is false or is likely to be false;
  • Those statement are published or communicated as fact to a third person;
  • Demonstrated harm resulted to the corporation/association.

All three elements must be present which is why it is often said truth is an absolute defense.

While the rules governing these suits are governed by state law, on any topic of public interest there is strong element of First Amendment-Free Speech protection that will attach.

Perhaps the most famous example is a group of cattlemen suing Oprah Winfrey and one of her talk-show guests for statements about mad cow disease which the cattlemen claimed hurt sales. The case was ultimately thrown out.

Defamation claims are sometimes lodged or threatened as a corporate tactic to deter or punish reviews or statements unfavorable to their interests. Suits filed for this purpose are called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP suits.

While SLAPP suits are classically defamation civil suits, they can also be framed as suits for interference with contract or economic advantage, conspiracy, nuisance or some other tort.

To counter SLAPP suits, many states have adopted statutes that provide for speedy hearings of such claims, as well as allow for possible recovery of legal fees and punitive damages payable to the defendant.