State Laws Making Inroads against Frivolous Lawsuits

By 1996, New York Times News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), June 23, 1996 | Go to article overview

State Laws Making Inroads against Frivolous Lawsuits


1996, New York Times News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


A university that offers a doctorate in sensuality, including courses in "niceness and meanness," "teasing" and "mutual pleasurable stimulation of the human nervous system" proved to be an irresistible story to The San Francisco Chronicle.

So in 1992, in one of several articles detailing the problems of More University, The Chronicle published the school's curriculum and called it "an academy of carnal knowledge." That June, the university sued for libel, citing this description and The Chronicle's account of its other activities.

Although such a suit may seem frivolous - a court held that on its face More's complaint was without merit - lawyers say it is one of thousands that have been filed mainly to retaliate against critics or to intimidate them into silence.

Few of the suits, called strategic lawsuits against public participation (or Slapp suits), are successful. But with defendants sometimes spending years and hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get one of these suits dismissed, many become too scared to ever again speak out on a public issue.

For The Chronicle, the price of justice was not too onerous. In August 1994, a California court dismissed More's suit and later ordered it to pay The Chronicle's $60,000 in legal expenses. A state appellate court upheld the dismissal earlier this year although further appeal on the legal fees is possible. The Chronicle has yet to recover any of the money it spent to defend itself.

But the dispute would have lasted far longer and cost even more if not for the fact that in 1992, California adopted a law to prohibit Slapp suits.

As the number of such suits has grown since becoming common in the 1970s, so has the outcry against them. Since 1989, anti-Slapp laws have been passed in eight states besides California - Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Rhode Island and Washington. …

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