In 2011, the Texas legislature passed a bill that provides an expedited dismissal remedy to citizens who are wrongfully sued for speaking out about matters of public concern regarding the government or a business. Testimony in support of the bill showed that SLAPP suits — strategic lawsuits against public participation — were often filed against these citizens to chill public debate. Apparently, this was becoming more pervasive in the age of the internet. The bill that was passed is now Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code Chapter 27, known as the Texas Citizens Participation Act. Defendants who are successful under the Act are not only entitled to a dismissal of the claim for defamation but they are also entitled to recover costs and attorney fees.
On June 9, 2017, the Texas Supreme Court, in Bedford v. Darin Spassoff and 6 Tool, LLC, No. 16-0229, rendered an opinion interpreting this statute. In this case, the Defendant posted the following to Facebook, regarding one of the coaches of a baseball-instructional organization:
“ ***Be very careful. One of the coaches put my son on the team an (sic) then started calling and texting my wife. This coach is a home wrecker and the club stands behind him. I guess that’s the kind of lessons they plan on teaching the kids. Very unethical and from talking to the executives they don’t plan on changing. Please stay away!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
The owner, Spassoff, and the baseball instructional organization, formerly known as the Dallas Dodgers, filed a lawsuit against the Defendant alleging, amongst other things, that by posting the information on Facebook, the Defendant had committed libel and business disparagement. The Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the libel claim, under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, arguing that the Plaintiffs brought the claims to prevent him from “engaging in constitutionally protected activities.” The Texas Supreme Court found, “Even if the Facebook posts here were defamatory, the statement is not defamation per se and Spassoff and the Dodgers failed to establish damages by clear and specific evidence.” The court went on to hold that the libel claim should be dismissed under the Act. The Texas Supreme Court remanded the claim to the trial court for dismissal and the determination of attorney fees to which the Plaintiffs would be entitled under the Act.
Written by: Dane Patrick