Note: This page covers information specific to Georgia. For general information concerning Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), see the overview section of this guide.
You can use Georgia's anti-SLAPP law to counter a SLAPP filed against you, but only in limited situations. Ga. Code Ann., § 9-11-11.1 allows a defendant to move to dismiss a SLAPP, provided that the exercise of free speech that prompted the lawsuit is about "an issue under consideration or review by a governmental body." If the court grants your anti-SLAPP motion, you may recover expenses and attorneys' fees from the SLAPP filer.
Activities Covered By The Georgia Anti-SLAPP Statute
To challenge a lawsuit as a SLAPP in Georgia, you need to show that the plaintiff is suing you for an act "in furtherance of the right of free speech or the right to petition government for a redress of grievances under the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of the State of Georgia in connection with an issue of public interest or concern." Ga. Code Ann., § 9-11-11.1(b). The statute further defines this as
- any written or oral statement, writing, or petition made before or to a legislative, executive, or judicial proceeding, or any other official proceeding authorized by law, or any written or oral statement, writing, or petition made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a legislative, executive, or judicial body, or any other official proceeding authorized by law.
Ga. Code Ann., § 9-11-11.1(c). This definition limits your protection under the anti-SLAPP statute to (1) statements made in an official government proceeding, (2) statements relating to an issue currently under consideration or review in an official government proceeding, and (3) statements calling for such official review or consideration.
Categories 2 and 3 are the most important for online publishers. It is important to note what is not included here: If someone sues you for making statements on your website or blog about a topic or issue of ordinary public interest that is not under government consideration or review, and you are not calling for such consideration or review, then you are not entitled to bring an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss under section 9-11-11.1.
For example, in Berryhill v. Georgia Community Support & Solutions, 281 Ga. 439 (2006), Shirley Berryhill allegedly made statements in web postings and emails complaining about the poor treatment and care provided to her handicapped son by a healthcare facility. The Georgia Supreme Court held that, although Ms. Berryhill's statements pertained to a matter of public concern, she could not invoke the anti-SLAPP statute because her statements did not relate to an existing official proceeding or request the initiation of an official investigation or proceeding.
How To Use The Georgia Anti-SLAPP Statute
When a plaintiff files a lawsuit against someone for an act which reasonably could be viewed as "in furtherance of the right of free speech or the right to petition government for a redress of grievances under the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of the State of Georgia in connection with an issue of public interest or concern" (as defined above), the anti-SLAPP law requires the plaintiff and his or her attorney to file written verifications under oath certifying that the claim is well grounded in fact and is warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the modification of existing law. Ga. Code Ann., § 9-11-11.1(c).
If you are sued, and you believe that your speech fits the criteria outlined in the section above, you should bring this verification requirement to the attention of the plaintiff or his or her attorney. If the plaintiff fails to make the required verifications within ten days of being notified, the court must dismiss the case.
If the plaintiff submits the required verifications, you can file a motion to dismiss the case for improper verification in violation of Ga. Code Ann., § 9-11-11.1(b). Once you have made the motion, the court must hear it within thirty days, barring court emergencies. Additionally, once you file your motion, the plaintiff generally cannot engage in "discovery" -- that is, the plaintiff generally may not ask you to produce documents, sit for a deposition, or answer formal written questions, at least not without first getting permission from the court.
In deciding the motion, the court will first consider whether your speech fits the criteria described in the section above. If it finds that you are eligible to make the motion, the court will then examine the verifications and documents submitted by the plaintiff. After this review, if the court finds that the plaintiff or attorney either did not believe that the legal claim was legitimate or brought the lawsuit against you for an improper purpose, then the court will grant your motion to dismiss. Alternatively, the court will grant your motion to dismiss if the judge finds that your statements were made in good faith. See Atlanta Humane Society v. Harkins 278 Ga. 451, 455-56 (Ga. 2004). If the plaintiff's case is strong, however, then the court will not grant your motion to dismiss, and the lawsuit will move ahead like any ordinary case.
When faced with a lawsuit that you believe is a SLAPP, it is critically important that you seek legal assistance immediately. Successfully getting a SLAPP dismissed can be complicated, and you and your lawyer need to move quickly to avoid missing important deadlines. Keep in mind that, although hiring legal help is expensive, you may recover your attorneys' fees if you win your motion. In addition, there may be public interest organizations that would be willing to take on your case for free or for a reduced rate. The First Amendment Center has an excellent list of organizations that can help.
What Happens If You Win A Motion To Strike or Dismiss
If you prevail on a motion to dismiss under Georgia's anti-SLAPP law, the court will dismiss the lawsuit against you, and you can ask the court to impose sanctions on the other side. These sanctions may include your expenses in defending against the suit, including reasonable attorneys' fees.
In addition, if you succeed in fending off a SLAPP in Georgia, you may be able to bring a claim for malicious prosecution or abuse of process against the SLAPP filer. While Georgia does not explicitly recognize a "SLAPPback" claim, the elements of these claims are similar. You should consult an attorney to see whether such a claim may be viable in your case.