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Court rules reporters not covered by state law against debate-squelching lawsuits by corporations

The Supreme Judicial Court today ruled today a state law intended to protect residents against lawsuits by big corporations for exercising their right to petition the government does not apply to reporters.

However, the court noted in a decision on a lawsuit brought against a writer for a North End newspaper that reporters remain protected from frivolous or "strategic" lawsuits under the Supreme Court's Sullivan v. New York Times libel decision.

The ruling means that Steven Fustolo can continue his defamation lawsuit against Fredda Hollander, who wrote several articles for the Regional Review about properties he owns in the North End. Fustolo argues that Hollander, a longtime member of the North End Waterfront Residents' Association wrongly inflamed local opinion against him to the point he was forced to withdraw development plans for the properties.

Hollander sought to dismiss Fustolo's lawsuit, arguing she was protected under the state's law against "stratetic lawsuits against public participation." In its ruling today, the SJC notes the law only applies to the right of citizens to petition government for redress of a perceived wrong - not for articles about the issue.

Even though Hollander claimed she was directly affected by Fustolo's proposals, her articles were not "petitions" and so not covered by the law, the court said:

Hollander's articles did not contain statements seeking to redress a grievance or to petition for relief of her own.

The court added:

Hollander points to the important role that reporters and the press historically have played in our democracy in exposing issues of public concern and encouraging or sparking necessary governmental scrutiny. A determination that she is not entitled to the protection of § 59H for her acts of encouraging community participation in this case, Hollander argues, "runs the risk of undercutting or stripping the anti-SLAPP statute of a significant portion of its value." We disagree. To the extent that Hollander fears a chilling effect on reporters and the press if they are not entitled to claim the protection of the anti-SLAPP statute in cases where they write about contentious issues of public concern, we note that the common law of defamation, with its constitutional overlay, see, e.g., New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), provides reporters with protection for both opinions and, of probable greater relevance to this case, for fair reports of public meetings of both government bodies and organizations such as NEWRA.

Complete decision.

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