NJ closer to limiting lawsuits censoring free speech, deterring public debate

NJ closer to limiting lawsuits censoring free speech, deterring public debate

Kevin J. Rooney

TRENTON, N.J. – The New Jersey Legislature last week advanced a measure, sponsored by Assemblyman Kevin J. Rooney, to protect public discourse from frivolous lawsuits meant to silence critics through costly legal action.

If the bill (A4393) is signed by the governor, New Jersey will become the 33rd state to enact anti-SLAPP legislation. SLAPPs, which stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” are often meritless lawsuits that target journalists, activists or other detractors.

“This legislation promotes constitutionally protected free speech, because public debate is not only an American right, but also a healthy part of civic engagement,” Rooney (R-Bergen) said. “Unfortunately, people with a lot of money and power try to silence their critics by suing, no matter how baseless their case. By getting this bill to the governor’s desk, we are closer to combatting the frivolous lawsuits that are solely meant to intimidate and harass detractors.”

While most SLAPP lawsuits are unsuccessful when fully litigated, the defendant must obtain an attorney and pay for the costs of their defense before courts ultimately decide to uphold the First Amendment after several proceedings.

Rooney’s bill awards reasonable attorney fees and court costs to prevailing defendants. It also allows for quicker case dismissals by requiring plaintiffs to demonstrate they can overcome First Amendment protections prior to litigation.

“Putting the onus on the plaintiffs to prove their case up front will discourage people from weaponizing the legal system,” Rooney added. “Modernizing New Jersey law to ensure freedom of speech prevails is especially important during a time when opposing views are too often suppressed.”

Both the Senate and Assembly passed the bill unanimously.