Free Speech Protections Bolstered in District of Columbia

In a significant victory for CIR client “Zujua” — an anonymous Wikepedia editor who was sued for defamation for making edits to a Wikipedia entry — the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed trial judge Maurice Ross’s earlier ruling denying Zujua attorney’s fees.

Judge Ross had ruled that the D.C. anti-SLAPP statute only allows an award of attorney’s fees for what Ross termed “classic” SLAPP lawsuits, which he characterized as suits designed to stifle free speech by filing a frivolous claim.  In his view, the suit against Zujua did not stifle his speech and was not frivolous (even though the Court of Appeals had earlier determined that it had no realistic chance of success).  Among Ross’s rationales struck down by the Court of Appeals was the fact that Zujua was represented by the Center for Individual Rights, a public interest law firm that Ross contended is unmotivated by fees.

The Court of Appeals ruled that an anonymous defendant who successfully challenges a subpoena under the District’s anti-SLAPP statute is presumptively entitled to attorney’s fees never mind whether the subpoena meets Ross’s definition of a “classic” SLAPP suit or whether the defendant is represented by public interest counsel.  It is enough that the defendant show that his speech fits within the category of speech covered by the SLAPP statute, i.e., that it is in furtherance of the right of advocacy on an issue of public interest.

Zujua’s victory before the Court of Appeals ensures that defendants who engage in public advocacy can seek quick dismissal of expensive lawsuits that have no realistic chance of success without incurring ruinous legal fees.  Had the Court ruled the other way, participants in public debate would have been under pressure to settle potentially ruinous defamation suits regardless of their merit solely because they could not afford to avail themselves of the protection offered by the SLAPP statute (or could not find a public interest firm to represent them pro bono).

Zujua was supported by an amicus briefs from the ACLU, which argued that the presumptive award of attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party is “essential to achieving the objectives of the anti-SLAPP statute.”  The Court of Appeals decision is the second precedent-setting victory CIR has achieved under D.C.’s anti-SLAPP statute.  Zujua’s case now returns to Judge Ross to decide the reasonableness of Zujua’s fee petition, including the additional fees attributable to this most recent trip to the Court of Appeals.