Event Notices

ACLU Supports North End’s Hollander in Precedent Setting Case

The American Civil Liberties Union issued the following press release today in support of Fredda Hollander and her appeal that will be heard by the Supreme Justice Court on Monday, November 2, 2009.

SJC to Weigh Case on Rights of Journalists and Community Activists
ACLU supports reporter’s appeal, argues community journalists should be protected under state “anti-SLAPP” law

On Monday, November 2, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts is scheduled to hear an appeal by a journalist and neighborhood activist, Fredda Hollander, who was sued by a developer who claimed she defamed him in five statements she wrote in newspaper articles relating to government review of the developer’s activities in Boston’s North End neighborhood.

WHAT: Oral argument before Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
WHERE: Monday, November 2, 2009, 9:00 a.m.
WHEN: Courtroom One, Second Floor, John Adams Courthouse, One Pemberton Square, Boston

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has joined with the Citizen Media Law Project and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the Boston Bar Association in filing a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Hollander before the state’s high court, urging the Court to throw out the case against her.

A lower court judge denied Hollander’s “special motion to dismiss” the
lawsuit brought by developer Stephen Fustolo, ruling that because she was
paid for her work by a community newspaper, the Regional Review, she was not
protected under the state’s “anti-SLAPP” (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public
Participation) law, which was intended to protect the right to petition.

“We think that was an error,” said Sarah Wunsch, ACLU of Massachusetts staff
attorney, noting that the statute’s definition of protected petitioning
activity is very broad and includes speech aimed at bringing public
attention to issues being considered by government bodies, to encourage
government review of an issue, or which is likely to enlist public
participation to obtain government review.  Hollander’s writings should be
protected under those definitions, Wunsch said.

“The protections of the anti-SLAPP statute are very important in ensuring
that people aren’t frightened away by lawsuits when they get involved in
community issues,” said Paul Holtzman, attorney at the Boston law firm
Krokidas & Bluestein, who helped author the ACLU of Massachusetts amicus
brief.  “Journalists and employees for advocacy groups play a key role in
bringing attention to those issues, and they should be protected by the
statute just like anyone else, even if they are paid for their work,”
Holtzman said.

The Massachusetts Anti-SLAPP statute, G.L. c. 231, § 59H, was enacted by the
legislature in 1994 in order to help prevent lawsuits aimed at punishing
people for exercising their freedom to petition the government.  Enacted
over two vetoes by Governor Weld and the vigorous opposition of real estate
and business interests, the law is especially important because it provides
that the SLAPP suits should quickly be dismissed if the petitioning activity
was not baseless.  In addition, the plaintiff must pay the attorneys fees of
a SLAPP defendant who succeeds on a “special motion to dismiss.”  This
provision has given considerable strength to the now-explicit statutory
protection given to the First Amendment right to petition through the
anti-SLAPP law.

The Preamble to 1994 House Doc. No. 1520 states the legislature’s purposes:
The Legislature finds and declares that full participation by persons and
organizations and robust discussion of issues before legislative, judicial,
and administrative bodies and in other public fora are essential to the
democratic process, that there has been a disturbing increase in lawsuits
brought primarily to chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights
of freedom of speech and petition for the redress of grievances, and that
such litigation is disfavored and should be resolved quickly with minimum
cost to citizens who have participated in matters of public concern.”

The ACLU of Massachusetts was one of the main organizations that sought the
passage of the anti-SLAPP law, after receiving pleas for help from people in
a number of communities who had been sued after signing petitions seeking
environmental review of developer plans.

The case to be heard on Monday is Fustolo v. Hollander, No. SJC-10485.  In
addition to Wunsch and Holtzman, another attorney on the joint ACLU of
Massachusetts/Citizen Media/Lawyers Committee brief is Christopher Bavitz,
an attorney with the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School which is
affiliated with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Fredda Hollander
is represented by Boston attorney Harvey S. Shapiro, who will be arguing for
her before the court.

Sarah Wunsch, Staff Attorney, 617-482-3170 x323, swunsch@aclum.org
Christopher Ott, Communications Director, 617-482-3170 x322, cott@aclum.org

See also:
North End Reporter Takes Developer’s Lawsuit to Mass Supreme Court