Bill to protect residents from defamation lawsuits passes in the Senate

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RICHMOND, Va. -- A bill that seeks to protect people from defamation lawsuits when they speak out on a matter of public concern has passed the Senate, but the part that would have protected people from lawsuits when they write reviews on sites like Yelp was stripped from the legislation.

Senator Glen Sturtevant (R-Richmond) introduced the legislation after witnessing a situation involving some Richmond parents when he was on the school board.

Wendy Martin, one of those parents, said she just wanted to improve her daughter’s school when she wrote a letter to the Acting Superintendent with 49 other parents in 2013 outlining their concerns about how Lucille Brown Middle School, and the International Baccalaureate Program at two schools, were run.

But, several months later, her doorbell rang unexpectedly.

“I was served papers, and my jaw just hit the floor. It was terrifying,” Martin said.

The then-principal of Lucille Brown filed a 3.5 million dollar lawsuit against Martin, her husband, and another couple for malice and defamation.

“For 486 days we endured this lawsuit,” Martin said.

Wendy Martin and daughter

Wendy Martin and daughter

The Virginia Supreme Court ultimately shot down the lawsuit, but Martin felt something needed to change.

“These are lawsuits that are never intended to be won, but rather to punish someone who has spoken out,” Martin said.

She said she found that 28 other states have laws on the books that protect people from these very lawsuits, otherwise known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP.

Yet, Virginia does not.

But, that may be about to change.

“You don’t have to have a lawsuit that has merit to file one,” Senator Sturtevant said. “The whole idea of them is to dis-incentivize people from speaking out.”

A bill introduced by Sturtevant would give citizens immunity from a defamation lawsuit when discussing a matter of public concern.

Currently, people are only protected when speaking at public meetings.

“That struck me as being a huge problem because these are private citizen, concerned parents who were working to make their child’s school better,” Sturtevant said. “Now they were facing a multi-million dollar lawsuit where they would have to go into their own pockets and spend a significant amount of money to hire lawyers to defend them against this lawsuit simply because they were speaking out on issues they really cared about.”

Sturtevant’s bill passed the Senate, but a part that would have protected people when they write reviews on sites like Yelp was removed.

A companion bill in the House that includes the review protection, and the public concern protection passed the House, but that now version moves to the Senate.