MADISON, Wis. (CIVIC MEDIA) – Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill yesterday to protect news organizations from frivolous lawsuits meant to bankrupt them. The bill was introduced by Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison) and Representative Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg).
SLAPP lawsuits are used to intimidate and silence news organizations and rack up legal bills, even when the person bringing the lawsuit knows they won’t win the case.
The proposed bill would allow a person or news organization being sued to throw out the lawsuit if they can prove that it attacks their free speech in connection to a public issue. It would also allow news organizations to recoup their legal costs from the person bringing the lawsuit.
31 states and Washington D.C. have already passed anti-SLAPP legislation, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The bill was brought forward after the New York Times reported on a Wausau newspaper that was struggling with legal fees from a SLAPP lawsuit. In 2021, the Wausau Pilot & Review, a small nonprofit news organization, reported that Cory Tomczyk, who is now a Republican state Senator, called a 13-year-old boy a slur for gay people during a county board meeting.
Tomczyk insists he didn’t say the slur, and demanded the Wausau Pilot & Review issue a retraction. When the news organization stood by their reporting, citing multiple witnesses at the meeting, Tomczyk sued them.
While a judge dismissed the case earlier this year, Tomczyk filed for an appeal, keeping the lawsuit going. So far, the Wausau Pilot & Review say they’ve racked up about $150,000 in legal bills, and are concerned about how they will continue paying staff.
Agard criticized Tomczyk at a press conference yesterday, and said a strong, unfettered press is essential for a strong, healthy democracy and is crucial for maintaining a well-informed citizenry.
Senator Tomczyk did not respond to a request for comment today.
Shereen Seiwert, founder and publisher of the Wausau Pilot & Review, said the bill would help local news organizations continue to serve their communities without risking their livelihood every step of the way.
Senator Kelda Roys (D-Madison) tweeted today that the Wausau Pilot & Review website was blocked on legislative computers for several hours.
Roys’ office told Civic Media the Legislative Technology Services Bureau issued a memo that said it was due to reports of phishing emails. Roys later tweeted that access to the website was later restored.
The Legislative Technology Service Bureau did not respond to Civic Media’s request for comment