NWLC, KYIX, Harvard Law, Vanderbilt Law Release First Guide Authored by and for Survivors on Defamation Lawsuits and Other Retaliation

(Washington, D.C.) Today, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), Know Your IX (KYIX), Harvard Law’s Cyberlaw Clinic, and Vanderbilt Law’s First Amendment Clinic, released Survivors Speaking Out, a new resource by and for survivors of sex-based harassment, including sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking. In recent years, victims of sex-based harassment have increasingly faced retaliation, including in the form of defamation lawsuits. This toolkit responds to this harmful trend by equipping those who speak out (or are thinking about it) with what they need to know about threats of retaliation. It will help survivors who have experienced sex-based harassment at school or at work understand their rights, risks, and options so they can make an informed decision about whether to speak out and, if so, how to protect themselves from harm.

The toolkit addresses different ways of speaking out, and how to respond to different types of retaliation, including being sued for defamation. It answers questions including: Is it possible to remain anonymous? How can I stay safe while speaking out? Can speaking out affect my education or job? Where can I find a lawyer? What should I do if I receive a cease-and-desist letter? Does my state have protections against retaliatory defamation lawsuits?

“From celebrities like Amber Heard to ordinary people who have experienced sex-based harassment, retaliatory defamation lawsuits have become all too common ways to silence, invalidate, or punish those speaking out about harm and abuse,” said Elizabeth Tang, lead author and senior counsel for education and workplace justice at NWLC. “Abusers have created an environment so hostile to survivors that it can be extremely difficult to decide whether to speak out at all. But telling our story can be a critical tool for healing, reclaiming power, and protecting our communities. We hope this toolkit builds collective knowledge, confidence, and strength for survivors.”

“More than ever, it’s crucial that student survivors are aware of their rights, potential risks, and options when speaking out,” said Emma Grasso Levine, co-author and Title IX Policy and Program Manager at Know Your IX, Advocates for Youth. “At Know Your IX, we are troubled by the increasing use of defamation cases to silence survivors in K-12 schools and higher education institutions nationwide. According to our report, The Cost of Reporting, 23% of student survivors are threatened with defamation suits by their abusers, creating a chilling effect on survivors’ ability to safely share their stories. Our hope is that this toolkit will empower survivors to make informed, autonomous decisions about when and how to speak out.” 

“For many student survivors, the decision to share your story is deeply personal. The power of speaking out and owning your truth can be both empowering and healing, but it can also come with certain risks and consequences,” said Dharma Koffer, co-author and Know Your IX Policy Organizer. “This toolkit contains answers to many of the questions that I wish I had known before speaking out. My hope is that this resource helps cultivate a world where we are able to safely share our truths – without fear of retaliation or a culture of silencing survivors.”