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Democrats Propose Anti-SLAPP Legislation

by BAYLOR SPEARS

The Wausau Pilot & Review – a nonprofit, online publication with a staff of four – reported in 2021 that Tomczyk, before he was a state senator, called a 13-year-old a homophobic slur during a public meeting. Cory Tomczyk denied using the slur and demanded a retraction. When the publication stood by its reporting, Tomczyk sued for defamation. 

According to the New York Times, Tomczyk admitted in a deposition to having used the word before “out of joking and out of spite” about his gay brother. Tomczyk’s case was dismissed in April when a Marathon County court ruled he hadn’t met the legal standard for proving that the report defamed him. Tomczyk filed an appeal in June. 

Shereen Siewert, founder and editor of the Wausau Pilot & Review, told the New York Times that she has already garnered about $150,000 in legal bills from the case and is concerned about how she will continue paying her staff of four and the mounting legal fees.  

According to a statement last week from the Wausau Pilot & Review, the publication has launched a GoFundMe to help with the organization’s considerable legal expenses, which are not recoverable under Wisconsin’s current law. The publication has so far raised more than $102,000. 

Strategic lawsuits against public participation – or SLAPP lawsuits – are a way of intimidating and silencing critics by burdening them with the cost of expensive, baseless legal proceedings. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 31 states and Washington D.C. have passed anti-SLAPP laws. 

Siewart said in a statement last week that anti-SLAPP laws “play a crucial role in protecting our constitutional right to freedom of the press and freedom of speech.” She added that it is “not a red vs. blue issue, but a bipartisan issue of fairness” and the bill proposed by Democrats “would discourage meritless lawsuits in the future and help local news organizations continue to serve their communities without risking their livelihood every step of the way.”

“Even if a suit is not viable, which is the case with Sen. Tomcyzk’s lawsuit, the cost and the stress associated with these frivolous, lengthy litigation processes are often enough to create chilling effects and force the defendant to silence,” Agard said at a press conference last week. “It takes a lot of stamina to be able to stand up against this type of political cohesion. Frankly, it is damaging to the state of Wisconsin and to our nation. It is damaging to our democracy.”

Bill Lueders, president of the nonpartisan Freedom of Information Council, cited a bipartisan shield law passed in 2010 that protects journalists from having to reveal the identity of confidential sources and disclosing unpublished news gathering information. 

“Now, [the Legislature] needs to pass a bill to prevent news organizations of public stories in accordance with well defined legal standards to prevent them from being sued into oblivion,” Lueders said. 

Lueders said local news outlets are vital for having an informed electorate, but that the challenges outlets face have never been greater.

This article is republished from the Wisconsin Examiner under a Creative Commons license.