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Texans’ Free Speech Protections at Risk

- Anti-SLAPP Law Under Attack in Austin

Legislation touted as an effort to stem frivolous lawsuits but which could actually stifle Texans’ free speech protections is advancing in the Texas Capitol where nearly two dozen free speech advocates spanning the political spectrum last week urged a House committee to tread carefully.

Groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union on the left to Americans for Prosperity on the right joined free speech advocates representing business interests and journalism in opposing SB 896 and offered various alternative approaches that would address abuses of the state’s Anti-SLAPP law without weakening its protections.

The Anti-SLAPP law ensures that rich and powerful individuals and corporations cannot silence their critics with lawsuits and costly legal maneuvers, though the law does not protect libelous statements.

SB 896, co-authored by Republicans Sen. Bryan Hughes of Tyler and Rep. Jeff Leach of Plano, ostensibly would curb abuse of the statute by attorneys who file such lawsuits frivolously, in an untimely manner or because the action is exempt under the law.

Anti-SLAPP advocates agree that frivolous lawsuits can and should be effectively prohibited by changes to court procedure, but that other provisions of the legislation would actually nullify the core free speech protections provided by the law.

Members of the House Committee on the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence, which Leach chairs, expressed concerns about going too far with changes that would “throw the baby out with the bath water” and questioned whether Texas courts could realistically act on appeals as quickly as the legislation envisions.

Attorneys on both sides of the issue were charged with working together on compromise language after last week’s hearing.

Eric Lassberg of KXAN-TV Austin and Bobby Springer of KHOU-TV Houston were two of the 18 witnesses registered to speak against the bill. Marc Fuller with Jackson Walker LLP testified on behalf of the Texas Association of Broadcasters. Laura Prather with Haynes Boone and head of the Anti-SLAPP Coalition closed the hearing with her testimony.

Four additional witnesses spoke in support of the measure.  

The committee can take up further consideration of the bill at its weekly meeting or whenever called by the chairman. At this time of year, it’s quite common for “desk meetings” to be held on the House floor at the end of a day’s session, though they provide little opportunity for transparency.

Questions? Contact TAB’s Oscar Rodriguez or call (512) 322-9944.

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