Several years ago, Steven Fustolo, a developer who has done numerous projects in the North End, sued a North End reporter, Fredda Hollander for articles she wrote in the Regional Review. Many may know her as a founder, editor, and writer for the North End News.
The progress of this lawsuit has been a topic of interest to many in the North End and other Boston neighborhoods. Last year, over one hundred North Enders and friends attended a fund-raiser held on Hollander’s behalf to help defray her legal expenses for this lawsuit.
Next Monday, November 2, this case will be argued before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC).
As reported by the Harvard Citizen Media Law Project website, the lawsuit involves allegations of defamation based on several articles Hollander wrote for the Regional Review, a free local newspaper serving the North End community in Boston. The articles in question reported on development activities planned by plaintiff Steven Fustolo and meetings of community groups that opposed his plans.
In his complaint, Fustolo alleged that as a result of Hollander’s articles, widespread neighborhood opposition developed in connection with two of his projects, as a result of which Fustolo was felt compelled to withdraw applications for variances then pending before the Boston Zoning Appeals Board.
Hollander denied that she had defamed Fustolo and asserted that her articles fairly and accurately reported the activities described. In response to Fustolo’s lawsuit, Hollander sought dismissal of the case under the Massachusetts anti‑SLAPP law—Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 231, § 59H.
The Massachusetts anti‑SLAPP statute protects a party from Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) by allowing that party to have a case dismissed at an early stage in the litigation if the lawsuit is based on his or her “exercise of [the] right of petition under the constitution of the United States or of the Commonwealth.” There is a detailed discussion of this statute at the Harvard Citizen Media law Project site at http://www.citmedialaw.org/legal-guide/anti-slapp-law-massachusetts.
The issue being argued before the SJC in Hollander’s case is whether the Mass anti-SLAPP statute applies to journalists. In many other states, journalists are covered by this statute, but this question has not yet been decided by an appellate court in Massachusetts.
In Hollander’s case, the Superior Court judge ruled that this statute did not apply to journalists. In another, very similar case in Plymouth, the judge ruled that journalists were covered by the anti-SLAPP statute. Hollander’s appeal to the SJC is expected to settle this issue. There is a very interesting and readable discussion of the Plymouth case at the “Of and Concerning” blog.
You can watch the SJC argument on the Internet. It will be broadcast live, and the argument will also be accessible in the archives afterwards. The argument should take place on November 2nd sometime between 9:00 am and noon, probably around 10:00 am. The web page for the live broadcast & archives is http://www.suffolk.edu/sjc. If you are interested, the briefs filed by both parties are available on the SJC site at: http://www.ma-appellatecourts.org/search_number.php?dno=SJC-10485.
The ACLU of Massachusetts in conjunction with the Harvard Citizen Media Law Project and the Boston Bar Association’s Civil Rights Committee have filed an Amicus brief in support of Hollander’s position. It is very readable, and if you want to read only one brief, this is the one to look at. (Click here to read the Amicus Brief.)
The amicus brief explained that, “SLAPP suits are brought in retaliation against individuals or organizations that speak out on a public issue or controversy, effectively intimidating and silencing the target through the threat of an expensive lawsuit. These suits affect not only the target, but may also deter others from voicing similar concerns. Such chilling effects would be greatly amplified if this Court upheld the Superior Court’s ruling that newspaper employees are categorically excluded from the anti‑SLAPP statute’s protections. Reporters would likely refuse to cover public issues for small community newspapers that lack the funds to defend them in court. Such a result would be inimical to the purpose of the anti‑SLAPP law.”
This appeal is from the Superior Court judge’s denial of Hollander’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed right after the suit was begun. As part of this motion, all further activity in the case was halted pending final resolution of the anti-SLAPP motion. If Hollander wins the appeal, the case is essentially over. If she loses this appeal, the case will go on to a trial.