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Freedom of speech, 'SLAPP,' and the importance of a Monday hearing in Austin

Media groups and others concerned about potential changes to free speech protections in Texas will express those concerns to state lawmakers next week.

Lawmakers, members of the media, and other groups concerned about potential changes to free speech protections in Texas will gather in Austin Monday for hearings aimed at refining existing "anti-SLAPP" legislation in the state.

SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, a legal action where the purpose is to silence someone for what the plaintiff considers objectionable speech. In response the Texas Legislature passed the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA) in 2011, a mechanism where a defendant can have such a lawsuit quickly dismissed and the legal costs shifted to the person filing the suit thereby discouraging frivolous lawsuits that attempt to stifle free speech.  

Put more simply, the TCPA was designed to have lawsuits like that thrown out and to prevent big companies and other powerful groups from suing people just to shut them up.

But groups like the Texans for Lawsuit Reform Foundation say the law is sometimes being abused. In a December 2018 discussion paper sub-titled "An effective statute, but is it too broad?" the foundation cited numerous examples, including a lawyer accused of hiding behind the free speech protection to extort blackmail, and a company losing trade secrets to a competitor but unable to sue for the losses because the trade secrets were considered an exercise of free speech.

So lawmakers like Representative Jeff Leach R-Plano, have proposed sweeping changes to the law. House Bill 2730 will be the subject of a hearing in Austin on Monday.

In a phone conversation this morning, Leach said: "The bill that was passed in 2011 was a really good bill and necessary. Unfortunately it became something that was not intended. It became a sword instead of a shield."

"This law is basically the best free speech protection that Texans have but don't know it. They don't know it until they need it," said Oscar Rodriguez, president of the Texas Association of Broadcasters. "There are factions that appear more interested in taking Texans back to the days where a wealthy individual or a powerful corporation can sue someone into silence simply because they don't like what they've said. And that's something that we cannot do."

Leach says he has had multiple meetings with news media, film industry representatives and others and has taken their concerns into account. He says the bill originally drafted has been extensively updated and changed. He expects to release the amended version this weekend and will present the changes at the Monday hearing.

"We will see a great work product that every group will be able to get behind," Leach said. 

He says the bill will continue to protect free speech and that "in fact (it will) make those protections stronger."

"To be clear, the free speech protections must apply to all Texans, not just journalists and that is what we need to keep our eye on," Rodriguez said.

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