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A New Version of SLAPP -- Lawsuit Could Chill Reporter-Source Relations

FOI Alert

For more information, contact SPJ's Freedom of Information Committee Co-chairs:

Ian Marquand: 406/542-4449 or ian@kpax.com
Charles Davis: 573/882-5736 or daviscn@missouri.edu

Imagine this situation: You are a journalist with a significant investigative story with potentially great public interest. Your sources are solid and the story has been approved by your organization at every level. Its initial publication even strikes a chord with the community and yields more sources and more stories.

Eventually, the subject of the story sues for slander and defamation. But the targets are not you or your news outlet; instead, the subject sues the people he claims you have interviewed. These people are now vulnerable and may have to spend large amounts of money defending against – or extricating themselves from – the suit.

The situation outlined above is happening right now in Cincinnati, Ohio, over stories broadcast from February to June by WCPO-TV. The original story, broadcast February 24 and published on the station’s website, outlined allegations of improprieties in patient billing by Family Dental Care Associates, a chain of dental clinics owned by dentist J. Michael Fuchs. Following that first broadcast, the station was contacted by hundreds of people with similar complaints, as well as complaints about the clinic’s cleanliness and the quality of patient care. Follow-up stories were broadcast regarding those complaints.

On Aug. 8, Fuchs filed suit against six former employees of the dental clinics and two former patients, seeking money damages and attorney’s fees from each respondent. To date, the station and its personnel have not been sued. But the message of the lawsuit is clear: Just talking to the media can cost you, even ruin you, even if you’ve told the truth.

SPJ considers this lawsuit the latest version of a SLAPP–a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Put simply, a SLAPP suit is designed to stifle the First Amendment rights of citizens to speak out, either on matters of public policy or to air grievances against the private sector.

SPJ has spoken out against SLAPP suits before and condemns this legal tactic as an attack on Americans’ First Amendment rights. Further, we see these kinds of suits as a blatant, if indirect, attempt to punish the media by throwing up a barrier of fear between journalist and source, intimidating those who might wish to come forward to reveal damaging or embarrassing information--in this case, about the private sector.

Read SPJ’s special report on SLAPP’s:
How The Media Can Take Advantage Of State Laws To Win Early Dismissal of Meritless Libel Lawsuits”
For copies, call SPJ at (317) 927-8000 ext. 200 or write to spj@spj.org. Ask for Kevin Mohl.

Other Resources (California):
*The California Anti-SLAPP Project: www.casp.net
*First Amendment Project: www.thefirstamendment.org/antislappresourcecenter.html

SPJ FOI Alert Vol. 8; No. 9

To subscribe to the Society of Professional Journalists FOI Alert, contact SPJ at spj@spj.org or call 317/927-8000. In your message, provide your name, organization, mailing address, e-mail address, phone number and fax number. There is no fee. We strongly encourage the wide dissemination and publication of these alerts in other forums.

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