The attached policy short was co-authored by R Street Legal Intern Moriah Mensah.


 

In 2009, Angelique Smith and other parents of students at Agora Cyber Charter School began questioning in online forums whether a school official was illegally diverting education funds. The response she received – a defamation suit seeking $300,000 in damages – should shock and offend.

Filed by school official Dorothy June Brown, the complaint charged that the parents’ online comments “give the clear but false impression that Dr. Brown is corrupt, incompetent, and possibly criminal.”

But Smith and the other parents weren’t the only ones troubled by Brown’s work as a charter-school official. In 2012, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia charged Brown “with defrauding three charter schools of more than $6.5 million between 2007 and April 2011.” Despite the charges against Brown, which stemmed from an investigation by the FBI and U.S. Department of Education, Smith testified before the Pennsylvania Legislature in 2014 that none of the FBI agents she met with “spoke up on [her] behalf” as she faced Brown’s lawsuit.

We may never know the particular facts regarding Brown’s conduct as a school official – a jury acquitted her of six of the counts, deadlocked on 54 others and the remaining charges were later dismissed due to Brown’s dementia. But the case underscores the need for strong protections against SLAPPs (strategic lawsuit against public participation), an insidious form of litigation that threatens citizens’ rights to free expression.

Brown’s retributive suit against Smith is a textbook example of a SLAPP, a lawsuit designed to keep citizens from speaking up about matters of public concern. Often couched as legitimate defamation actions, SLAPP litigation uses the court system as a club to silence and intimidate. Given the timing of the FBI investigation and ensuing indictment against Brown, it’s reasonable to infer that she filed the lawsuits to silence potentially damaging questions.

While Brown ultimately escaped prosecution by virtue of her incompetence to stand trial, Smith and other parents named in Brown’s defamation suit are left to sort out the wreckage in their personal lives, reputations and finances. In 2014, Smith testified in front of the Pennsylvania Legislature in support of S.B. 1095, legislation intended to afford greater protections to the victims of SLAPPs.

Anti-SLAPP laws do not derail legitimate defamation actions. Knowingly spreading false statements about a business or individual shouldn’t be protected, regardless of the forum. But that wasn’t the case with Angelique Smith, the other Agora Cyber Charter School parents or any number of other SLAPP targets across the country.