An Encouraging SLAPP

February 19, 2009

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals released a decision affirming that when someone speaks with an intention to change the way government operates, the law will try to protect the speech even if it borders on being defamatory.

The case arose in Marshall County in southwestern Minnesota where a resident whose land was “taken” by a governmental “Watershed District” sued but then settled the lawsuit.  The settlement required the landowner and the District to “endeavor to establish a positive and collaborative relationship” with each other.  A year later, the District sued the landowner alleging that he had breached the agreement by interfering with funding, making statements with intent to harm the project, and filing requests for public documents.

The landowner sought to have the lawsuit dismissed and wisely cited Minnesota’s “anti-SLAPP” statute, a little-known and little-used provision that requires courts to dismiss lawsuits involving “lawful conduct or speech that is genuinely aimed in whole or in part at procuring favorable government action.  SLAPP stands for “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.”  Anti-SLAPP statutes generally work to ensure that ideas freely flow when the ideas involve government.  California has led the way in fighting against lawsuits of this type, and in 1994 Minnesota’s anti-SLAPP statute took effect.

But barely anyone knows the law is on the books.

In Marshall County, the trial court let the lawsuit go forward, but on Tuesday the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that the trial court had to dismiss the case unless the District could demonstrate by “clear and convincing evidence” that the anti-SLAPP provision did not apply.

It remains to be seen whether the governmental entity can and will be able to do that.  In the meantime, though, the Court of Appeals has provided an important reminder that when one speaks out against government, the law should — and will — offer protection.

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