Animal Welfare Advocates Strike Back with Texas’ Anti-SLAPP Statute

AntiSLAPP, News & Blog

On July 26, a Harris County district judge ordered a farm animal sanctuary and its founders to pay roughly $159,000 in attorney’s fees and sanctions under Texas’ Anti-SLAPP statute for bringing a frivolous lawsuit. Two of the defendants in the defamation case were represented by Irvine & Conner attorney Kristen Schlemmer. One of the defendants, a Canadian citizen, was dismissed early in the case on personal jurisdiction grounds. The other defendant represented by Ms. Schlemmer, a Texas resident, was dismissed under the Texas Anti-SLAPP statute and its free speech protections.

What is the Texas Anti-SLAPP Statute?

More precisely known as the Texas Citizens Participation Act, this piece of legislation became law in Texas fairly recently. Since its enactment in 2011, the law has been instrumental in dis-incentivizing, through early dismissal and mandatory sanctions, lawsuits designed to suppress Texans’ First Amendment rights to free speech, free association, and petition governmental authorities. The Anti-SLAPP statute authorizes judges to dismiss frivolous lawsuits filed against defendants speaking out on a “matter of public concern.” In other words, the statute authorizes prompt dismissal of lawsuits designed to unconstitutionally limit defendants’ exercise of free speech.

For defendants to invoke the Anti-SLAPP statute’s protections, they must file a motion within the first 60 days of the case and shoulder the burden of proof to establish that the suit was filed in response to the exercise of their First Amendment rights. The plaintiff has the opportunity to prevent dismissal by offering basic evidence in support of each element of their claims. If the case is dismissed, the statute provides mandatory fee-shifting of attorneys’ fees. This means that the plaintiff will be responsible for paying the attorneys’ fees incurred by the defendant – and will also get hit with a mandatory fine (known as sanctions) from the judge.

Why Did Texas Need the Anti-SLAPP Statute?

During the normal course of a defamation lawsuit, a defendant can offer evidence showing the lawsuit targets their right to free speech. This evidence often would come deep into the lawsuit and, in the meantime, require defendants to devote significant resources to defending their right to speech. Most defendants do not have the resources needed to fully defend their right to speak freely about matters of public concern. The Anti-SLAPP statute thus offered a solution: the opportunity for early dismissal. Practically speaking, the statute allows individuals with limited resources the opportunity to defend themselves from frivolous lawsuits rather than accepting early unfavorable settlements that would limit their right to criticize well-funded interests.

How Does the Texas Anti-SLAPP Statute Protect Advocates?

In the past, many advocates have been shut down by frivolous defamation lawsuits from the entities or people being criticized. This potentially reduced opportunities for public discourse on issues of public concern, including environmental and animal welfare issues.

Irvine & Conner represents defendants in just these sorts of cases. Environmental and animal welfare advocates often find themselves speaking up against the practices of more powerful companies and organizations. The Texas Anti-SLAPP statute is in place to protect their right of free speech, right to petition, and right of association. The fee-shifting and mandatory sanction attributes of the statute offer a deterrent to would-be plaintiffs otherwise looking to shut down “the little guy” who vocally criticizes them.

The “Rowdy Girl Sanctuary” Case

Irvine & Conner attorney Kristen Schlemmer represented two critics of the Rowdy Girl Sanctuary in Angleton, Texas, who publicly questioned the ways that the non-profit sanctuary was soliciting and spending donations intended to help its farm animals. In response to the criticism, Renee King-Sonnen and her husband, Tommy Sonnen, who together run the Rowdy Girl Sanctuary, sued their critics for defamation. Their critics, all animal welfare advocates themselves, fought back with the help of the Texas Anti-SLAPP statute, and won. Many of the critics were former volunteers or donors who had issues with the way the sanctuary and its founders used funds for advertising, information technology, and $3,000 purportedly spent on the creation of t-shirts for the sanctuary.

***

If you are served with a defamation lawsuit as a result of the exercise of your right to free speech, you have legal options. Irvine & Conner would be happy to discuss these options with you. Please call our office at 713.533.1704.