Mar 27, 2020

Judge Slaps Down Lawsuit Over Campaign Flier

A political campaign flier is protected free speech under Florida’s Anti-SLAPP law, a Florida judge has ruled, dismissing a former city commissioner’s defamation suit for statements published by a political opponent.

A political campaign flier is protected free speech under Florida’s Anti-SLAPP law, a Florida judge has ruled, dismissing a former city commissioner’s defamation suit for statements published by a political opponent.

Plaintiff Sharon “Shanon” Materio was an incumbent City of West Palm Beach commissioner when she claims a flier, mailed by Defendants to potential voters in the weeks before the March 2018 election, falsely alleged that she benefited from an illegal homestead tax exemption on a Port St. Lucie house.

The Defendants, campaign consultants Pradeep Asnani and his company, Cornerstone Solutions Florida, LLC, and WPB Residents for Integrity in Government, filed motions to dismiss and for summary judgment. Defendants argued the Anti-SLAPP law applied to the mailers because the statements fall within the highly-protected category of political speech – that is, speech about public issues of great importance. Additionally, Defendants claimed their speech was privileged because they relied on public records to support the statements contained in the mailer. The Court agreed.

Florida’s Anti-SLAPP law is designed to provide a mechanism for expeditious dismissal of meritless lawsuits filed primarily because an individual exercised a constitutional right to free speech. § 768.295, Fla. Stat. (2018).

As an initial matter, the Court considered whether a campaign mailer falls within the ambit of Section 768.295, specifically applicable to lawsuits against a person for the exercise of “free speech in connection with a public issue,” which is statutorily defined as statements made “in connection with a play, movie, television program, radio broadcast, audiovisual work, book, magazine article, musical work, news report, or other similar work.” The Court found campaign fliers fall within the phrase’s statutory meaning, explaining that the Anti-SLAPP statute is to be construed liberally, not narrowly, and that the publication of political speech – whether in a magazine or in a mail flier – falls squarely within the intended meaning of “other similar work.”

In finding the Defendants met their initial burden of proving that the targeted speech falls within the meaning of the Anti-SLAPP statute, the burden shifted to Plaintiff to prove that the defamation claims are not “primarily” based on First Amendment rights in connection with a public issue, and that the claims are not without merit.

Although the Court acknowledged that “there is truth, and falsity” in the parties’ arguments, it recognized the merits of the case turned not on the falsity of the statements, but rather on the fault required to be proven by the Plaintiff. As a public official, the Plaintiff faced a significant burden of demonstrating that the Defendants acted with actual malice – that is, with knowledge that the statements were false or with reckless disregard to the truth. The Court found that Defendants’ reliance on reliable sources (i.e., public records) insulated them from a finding of actual malice as a matter of law.

This Court’s liberal reading and application of Florida’s Anti-SLAPP law reinforces a well-established pattern within the state’s courts to dismiss lawsuits seeking to silence unflattering, but clearly protected speech. Courts have often reasoned that such lawsuits unfairly force individuals to defend themselves in costly litigation and waste judicial resources. This case is a win for the First Amendment and further broadens the shield against trivial defamation suits within the state.

Linda R. Norbut  is an attorney in the Tampa office of Thomas & LoCicero with a practice concentration in media and communications law, including defamation and invasion of privacy. She also focuses on intellectual property and business litigation.

With offices in Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, Thomas & LoCicero is a Florida law firm that is widely known, respected and committed to free speech and a free press.  The firm represents the industry’s leading electronic and traditional publishers, as well as individual journalists, bloggers and influencers of social media on issues ranging from news gathering to invasion of privacy, from defamation to pre-publication review.  At the heart of the firm’s mission is to champion free speech and defend journalism every day.

Materio anti-SLAPP summary judgment

TLo secures dismissal of defamation lawsuit with prejudice, citing Florida’s litigation privilege

Stagecoaches or newspapers? Jim Lake assesses issues in U.S. Supreme Court social media cases

TLo Wins Marsy’s Law Appeal in Florida Supreme Court

Related Articles