The Uniform Public Expression Protection Act — legislation aimed at eradicating lawsuits that target critics — sits on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk, awaiting approval. Meanwhile, the state Press Association is urging him to sign.
Approved by state lawmakers June 30, the statute opposes strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs. If Murphy signs the bipartisan bill, New Jersey will become the 33rd state to adopt anti-SLAPP legislation
SLAPPs are often brought by businesses, government bodies or elected officials against those who oppose them on issues of public concern, according to the ACLU of Ohio’s website. SLAPPs usually appear as civil claims, such as defamation, invasion of privacy, interference with contract or economic advantage.
In a July 7 letter, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the New Jersey Press Association conveyed their support for the bill, arguing that SLAPPs are “particularly pernicious” for journalists and news organizations.
“Unflinching journalism is essential to expose wrongdoing and hold powerful public figures and officials to account,” the letter says. “Such vital news reporting depends upon journalists’ ability to identify, investigate, and report stories without fear that the subjects of their reporting will target them or their newsroom with costly, meritless litigation.”
Actions that have resulted in SLAPPs include writing letters to the editor, circulating flyers and commenting at public hearings, the ACLU of Ohio’s website says.
Based on legislation approved by the Uniform Law Commission, The Uniform Public Expression Protection Act would permit a party to file a special motion to expedite the dismissal of a SLAPP.
If signed by Murphy, the bill would take effect 30 days later.
In March, Peter Yacobellis, mayoral candidate and Montclair Councilor-at-Large, filed suit against David Herron and Martin Schwartz, alleging that the two defendants engaged in a “self-interested, defamatory smear campaign” intended to damage the councilor’s reputation.
Herron and Schwartz made statements during public comment at a February Montclair Township Council meeting alleging that Yacobellis has a conflict of interest and should recuse himself from all votes, discussions and related communications connected to the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment.
At the meeting, Herron said that Yacobellis’ position as executive director of Out Montclair was a “direct conflict of interest” because the organization had received “monies, donations, financial support from individuals seeking to develop Lackawanna Plaza.”
In June, Yacobellis informed constituents he was withdrawing the suit.
“This was a decision I made out of a desire to try and put the need for some inner peace and community healing in front of the need to be right,” Yacobellis wrote in a statement. “I had a very strong case that I was prepared to litigate fully. But as a mayoral candidate now, this is a distraction and my focus needs to be on solving some of our larger challenges as a town.”
In a June email, Schwartz said that before withdrawing the case, Yacobellis, through his attorney, had offered to settle in May for $20,000 to recover his attorney fees and costs. Schwartz’s attorney had responded by calling Yacobellis’ suit a SLAPP.