Freedom of Speech v. Defamation: The Texas Citizens Participation Act

In 2011, the Texas legislature passed the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA), meant to curtail the Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) often filed by businesses or other moneyed interests in retaliation for negative comments or complaints made by regular citizens.  The goal of SLAPP lawsuits is not necessarily to win, but to force the defendants to withdraw their statements and to silence them under the threat of costly litigation.

The TCPA protects Texans’ right to free speech by allowing defendants sued for defamation, business disparagement, or other speech-related torts to quickly dismiss lawsuits before the costly discovery begins and automatically recover legal fees if they succeed. By passing the TCPA, Texas joined 27 other states that have similar statutes.

Last week, the First Court of Appeals applied the TCPA to dismiss a lawsuit brought by an assisted living facility against a newspaper that published a number of articles discussing regulatory compliance problems and government investigations into the facility.  Newspaper Holdings, Inc. et al.  v. Crazy Hotel Assisted Living, Ltd., et al.provides a great example of when and how the TCPA applies.  See also Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Dallas, Inc. v. Ward and Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Dallas, Inc. v. BH DFW, Inc. discussing how negative ratings of businesses are protected by the TCPA.

In this case, the defendant newspaper published a number of articles about problems encountered at Crazy Hotel assisted living facility and the ensuing government investigations of such problems. Crazy Hotel filed a lawsuit for defamation, business disparagement and tortious interference against the newspaper and its source.  The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, invoking their free speech rights under the TCPA.   The trial court denied the motion to dismiss, but the First Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case for dismissal.

The Court of Appeals explained that the purpose of the TCPA is to “encourage and safeguard the constitutional rights of persons to petition, speak freely, associate freely, and otherwise participate in government to the maximum extent permitted by law and, at the same time, protect the rights of persons to file meritorious lawsuits for demonstrable injury” and the TCPA was to be construed liberally to effectuate its purpose and intent fully.  §§27.002, 011(b).

Motion to Dismiss Standard under the TCPA

In order to dismiss the lawsuit under the TCPA,  the court must find that (1) the defendant has established by preponderance of evidence that the legal action is based on, related to, or is in response to the defendant’s exercise of the right of free speech, the right to petition, or the right of association; AND (2) the plaintiff has failed to show by clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each essential element of its cause of action(s).  TCPA §27.005(b), (c).

The TCPA defines “the exercise of the right of free speech” as “a communication made in connection with a matter of public concern,” which includes, among other things, issues related to “health and safety,” and “environmental, economic, or community well-being.” TCPA §27.001(7) (A), (B).  Here, because the newspaper articles that gave grounds to the lawsuit related directly to Crazy Hotel’s obligations to fulfill the licensing requirements and standards applicable to the assisted living facilities under the Texas Health & Safety Code, the Court of Appeals found that they related to a matter of public concern.

The Court of Appeals also found that Crazy Hotel failed to introduce clear and specific evidence that any of the statements made in the newspaper articles were false or that the newspaper was negligent in making such statements, thus failing to show prima facie evidence in support of its claims.

Commercial Speech Exemption from the TCPA

Crazy Hotel argued that the TCPA did not apply to the statement made by the newspaper because it was a commercial and not non-profit organization and because the statements constituted commercial speech not protected by the TCPA.  TCPA §27.001(b).  The Court of Appeals, however, found that because the articles did not “arise out of the sale of lease” of newspapers, the commercial speech exemption did not apply, and to interpret the statute otherwise would defeat the purpose of the TCPA.

PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS:

If you are facing a defamation, business disparagement, or tortious interference lawsuit, or if you are considering filing one,  make sure  you consider how the TCPA will affect the claims.  As a general rule, any statements regarding matters of public concern are likely to be protected under the TCPA.  On the other hand, statements made in connection with the sale or lease of goods, services, or an insurance product or a commercial transaction intended for potential buyers or customers are not protected.  A claim that the TCPA applies will necessarily lead to compliance with strict procedural requirements set out by the statute.

For more information, contact Leiza Dolghih.

One Comment on “Freedom of Speech v. Defamation: The Texas Citizens Participation Act

  1. Pingback: Providing Reference for a Former Employee – What Can an Employer Say in Texas? | North Texas Legal News

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