Washington, DC – In an open letter to the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) released today, 28 nonprofit organizations and trade associations from across the political spectrum endorsed the ULC’s model state law to protect speakers from meritless and retaliatory lawsuits. The bill, known as the Uniform Public Expression Protection Act (UPEPA), was enacted by overwhelming margins in Kentucky and Hawaii earlier this year.
The groups tout the UPEPA as the best defense states can provide against lawsuits intended to silence or punish speech. Even when these lawsuits, known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (“SLAPP”), are unsuccessful, they can force speakers to spend tens of thousands of dollars to defend basic First Amendment rights. Anti-SLAPP laws such as the UPEPA aim to prevent litigants from abusing the legal system to retaliate against speech about matters of public concern.
“Already, 32 states have anti-SLAPP statutes, though most could be significantly improved by adopting some or all of the UPEPA’s language,” the letter explains. “Every state should adopt an anti-SLAPP law that follows the provisions in the UPEPA to provide national uniformity against abusive litigation that undermines First Amendment-protected freedom of expression.”
Anti-SLAPP laws create special legal procedures that allow defendants to get meritless lawsuits dismissed quickly and recoup their costs. Some anti-SLAPP laws, however, are better than others. The letter identifies six key advantages of the UPEPA model developed by the Uniform Law Commission in 2020.
Unlike some weaker anti-SLAPP laws, the UPEPA protects all expression on matters of public concern, minimizes litigation costs for defendants, requires plaintiffs to show they have a legitimate case early in the proceedings, provides defendants a right to an immediate appeal if their anti-SLAPP motion is denied, awards costs and attorney fees to a winning defendant, and instructs judges to interpret the law’s protections broadly. Altogether, these components offer strong protection for Americans who find themselves targeted with a frivolous lawsuit because of their speech.
“We appreciate the work of the Uniform Law Commission to craft the UPEPA and support its passage in states across the country with weak or no anti-SLAPP laws. Please share this letter with those working to enact or improve anti-SLAPP laws. Our organizations are ready and willing to lend support to such efforts,” the groups urge.
Signers of the letter include prominent civil liberties organizations, major trade associations, and groups representing journalists and publishers. The five organizing signers are the American Civil Liberties Union, Institute for Free Speech, Institute for Justice, Public Participation Project, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“At a time when politics is growing more divisive, protecting free speech in the courts is one thing all sides can agree on. Anti-SLAPP laws are popular across the political spectrum and receive strong bipartisan support because they safeguard everyone’s right to free expression,” said David Keating, President of the Institute for Free Speech, a nonpartisan First Amendment advocacy group that defends political speech rights.
In February, the Institute for Free Speech published its first-ever report card of state anti-SLAPP statutes. Only 16 states earned “A” or “B” grades. Fortunately, recent years have seen several states adopt or improve their anti-SLAPP laws. Washington adopted a new law in 2021, New York substantially improved its law in 2020, and Colorado and Tennessee adopted solid new laws in 2019.
Since our report was published, new or improved anti-SLAPP laws have also passed in Arizona, Hawaii, and Kentucky. In a testament to the UPEPA’s bipartisan appeal, the legislation passed 82-0 in the Kentucky House of Representatives and 30-2 in the Kentucky Senate. In Hawaii, the UPEPA passed the House and Senate without a single legislator voting against the bill. A version of the UPEPA was also passed by the Missouri House of Representatives and cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, but that chamber adjourned before action could be completed.
To ensure nationwide protection of free speech in the courts, every state should pass a strong anti-SLAPP statute. Adopting the UPEPA is the best way for states to deter SLAPPs and protect speakers from costly and time-consuming litigation over meritless claims.
To read the letter, click here.