Americans have a constitutional right to criticize the government without facing retaliation. That includes frivolous lawsuits meant to intimidate critics into silence. A new bill in Wisconsin aims to stop such lawsuits and protect Wisconsinites’ right to speak without fear of reprisal.
Members of the Wisconsin General Assembly introduced legislation Wednesday that protects activists, journalists, and others from strategic lawsuits against public participation—commonly called SLAPP lawsuits. These are powerful legal weapons that silence Americans through burdensome and costly litigation.
The goal of these lawsuits isn’t to win; it’s to bury an individual under mountains of legal bills. Many of these cases don’t stand a chance in court—but to the average American, the threat is intimidating enough to silence them.
People like Kelly Gallaher, a community activist in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, have had their free-speech rights infringed upon by baseless SLAPP lawsuits. After Kelly criticized her local village attorney for the way a legislative proposal was rolled out, he threatened to sue her for defamation unless she promised to never discuss him in public again. When she didn’t knuckle under to his demands, he carried out his threat. Kelly had done nothing wrong—a judge hearing the case later said she “did the research” before speaking—but she still faced ruinous legal bills as punishment for expressing herself.
With pro bono help from the Institute for Justice (IJ), the SLAPP lawsuit against Kelly was dismissed—upholding the core American principle that every citizen has the right to free speech without fear of retribution.
“Kelly’s lawsuit ended well because she had good, free lawyers,” said IJ Deputy Litigation Director Robert McNamara. “But the only thing you should need to talk about politics in America is an opinion, not a law firm. Baseless defamation suits impose real costs on speakers and, unless there are consequences for filing them, they are a tool that powerful government officials can use to silence anyone who annoys them.”
If the Wisconsin bill passes, it would allow an individual to ask a judge to dismiss a SLAPP lawsuit if they believe it was filed to impede their right to petition or speak about a public issue. If the judge agrees, the lawsuit can be dismissed, and the party who filed the lawsuit could have to pay the opposing party’s legal fees. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 31 other states have anti-SLAPP laws on the books to prevent government officials and others from attempting to silence individuals.
In addition to safeguarding free speech, anti-SLAPP laws protect people from losing their livelihoods. In Wisconsin, for instance, a news organization faces more than $150,000 in legal fees after a state lawmaker filed a SLAPP lawsuit against the publication when it accused him of directing a homophobic slur at a 13-year-old in August 2021. While the case was dismissed, the lawmaker is appealing, which is pushing the news organization to the brink of financial failure.
“Today, my colleagues and I are introducing legislation that honors the First Amendment and protects the media’s ability to report on matters of public concern without undue legal pressure and extraordinary financial costs because of a meritless lawsuit,” said Wisconsin Senate Democratic Leader Melissa Agard, who co-sponsored the bill.
The Constitution and the courts have been clear about the First Amendment. Public officials can’t file baseless lawsuits to punish innocent individuals, and anti-SLAPP laws serve as another important barrier to protect Americans’ ability to question those in power.
The right to criticize the government was one of the first liberties our Founding Fathers preserved in the Constitution. Back then, our leaders recognized the power of speech. Today, bills like this continue to protect that right.