On January 24, 2017, the Cyberlaw Clinic filed an amicus brief (pdf) on behalf of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in the case, Steinmetz v. Coyle & Caron Inc., First Circuit No. 16-1996. The brief supports defendant-appellee in the case, and the Court granted leave to file the brief this week (over the objections of plaintiff-appellant). RCFP was joined on the brief by The Associated Press, Gannett Co., Inc., the New England First Amendment Coalition, and the New England Newspaper & Press Association, Inc. RCFP has summarized the brief on its website.
The Steinmetz case arises out of a public debate over the plaintiffs’ plan to build a house in Cohasset, MA. After a local agency rejected the plan, the plaintiffs sued the defendant architectural firm for allegedly furnishing inaccurate renderings of the proposed structure. The defendant successfully moved to dismiss under the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute, Mass. Gen. Laws c. 231, § 59H. On appeal, the plaintiffs challenge, inter alia, the constitutionality of this provision, arguing that it represents a violation of their Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial.
The amicus brief focuses on the animating policies behind Section 59H. Massachusetts, like many other states, passed anti-SLAPP legislation in response to the increased use of litigation to silence constitutionally protected speech and petitioning activities—hence the moniker “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.” Section 59H provides for the expedited dismissal of claims arising out of protected petitioning activities unless the plaintiff can show that the defendant’s petitioning “was devoid of any reasonable factual support or any arguable basis in law” and “caused actual injury to the responding party.” Relying on case law, legislative history, and academic analysis, RCFP’s amicus brief explains that Section 59H narrowly and properly protects the First Amendment interests of Massachusetts’ citizens. Striking it down, RCFP writes, would “harm freedom of the press and freedom of speech, at a time when the need for protection is great.”
Winter 2017 Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic student Hannah Clark contributed significantly to the brief.