D.C.’s Anti-SLAPP Law Is in Peril. Here’s Why It’s Critical for Survivors of Gender-Based Violence.

What do all of these lawsuits have in common? 

  • A survivor reports to her employer that her co-worker sexually assaulted her. They fire him, and he sues her for defamation and for interfering with his employment. 
  • An Indigenous water protector protests the construction of a new oil pipeline. The multibillion-dollar corporation sues them for defamation and civil conspiracy. 
  • A journalist writes an article about a politician’s long history of corruption. The politician sues him for defamation. 

These lawsuits are all Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs. They are meritless lawsuits filed to intimidate people from speaking out against misconduct or to retaliate against them for having spoken out. SLAPP filers don’t typically expect to win in court, but SLAPPs are still effective in silencing their victims. This is because defending against even the most unwarranted SLAPP can still require a lot of time and money, and SLAPP filers tend to have more money and power than their victims. 

Luckily, Washington, D.C. is one of 35 U.S. states and territories that currently have an anti-SLAPP law. In D.C., if you speak out about an issue of public interest and are sued with a SLAPP, you can ask the court to: (1) pause discovery (the stage in a lawsuit where both sides get evidence from each other), (2) dismiss the case, and (3) make the person who sued you pay your litigation costs. 

D.C.’s anti-SLAPP law is powerful, but it’s currently in peril. It all started when the American Psychological Association (APA) and the law firm Sidley Austin published a report concluding that some APA members had helped U.S. officials torture prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The psychologists named in the report sued the APA and Sidley for defamation. Naturally, the APA and Sidley filed an anti-SLAPP motion: this was clearly a lawsuit based on their speaking out about an issue of public interest—torture. The lower D.C. courts agreed, but the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled against APA and Sidley and struck down the discovery-pausing provision of D.C.’s anti-SLAPP law. Thankfully, the Court of Appeals then decided to rehear the case and restored the anti-SLAPP law (for the time being).  

We decided to weigh in at this crucial point in the appeal process. While Banks isn’t a case about gender-based violence, the Court of Appeal’s decision will have profound implications for survivors throughout D.C. (Note: while torture at Guantanamo Bay has often included sexual abuse, it was not included in the APA’s report.) 

NWLC, DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence (DCCADV), and Network for Victim Recovery of DC (NVRDC) led an amicus brief on behalf of 13 individual and organizational survivor advocates in D.C. explaining what’s at stake for survivors. We note that gender-based violence is widely prevalent yet vastly underreported, and that survivors commonly face retaliation when they come forward. In addition, abusers are increasingly using defamation suits and other SLAPPs to silence their victims, retaliate against them for speaking out, and further the cycle of abuse.  

Therefore, D.C.’s anti-SLAPP law is essential to protecting survivors’ ability to freely report and advocate against gender-based violence. In particular, the discovery-pausing provision protects survivors from the expense and retraumatization of sharing private records with their abuser and submitting to hours of aggressive interrogation from their abuser’s attorney.  

And we know the law works! Jane Doe, a former NVRDC client, was sued by her stalker for defamation after she filed for a civil protection order against him. After she used D.C.’s anti-SLAPP law to get the case dismissed, he finally stopped stalking her. Nina Doe, another former NVRDC client, was sued by her assailant after she reported him to his employer. But when she made it clear that she would use D.C.’s anti-SLAPP law to dismiss his lawsuit and make him pay for it, he backed down and even stopped harassing her altogether. 

If any part of D.C.’s anti-SLAPP law is struck down, it will be a terrible loss for survivors. Our brief urges the Court of Appeals to keep the law intact and to affirm the lower court’s order dismissing the SLAPP against the APA and Sidley. 

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If you have experienced sex harassment, gender-based violence, or other sex discrimination at school, in the workplace, or when receiving health care, you can contact NWLC’s Legal Network for Gender Equity to get information about your rights and get a free initial legal consultation from attorneys who practice in your state.  

If you are a survivor and are thinking about speaking out (or already have spoken out) and are worried about facing retaliation, including being targeted with a SLAPP, you can learn more about your rights, risks, and options using NWLC’s and Know Your IX’s toolkit: Survivors Speaking Out: A Toolkit About Defamation Lawsuits and Other Retaliation by and for People Speaking Out About Sex-Based Harassment.