High court secures free speech protections in Georgia

In a court victory with First Amendment implications, the Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled that the state’s anti-SLAPP statute protects a speaker from being sued for defamation for criticizing a public official, unless the speaker was aware their statements were probably false.

The Georgia Supreme Court further held that the speaker’s failure to exhaustively investigate before making the critical statements does not establish a reckless disregard for the truth. This decision reinforces Georgia’s anti-SLAPP statute.

Strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, once emboldened litigants seeking to use groundless defamation and other claims to chill free speech in Georgia. With its Oct. 19 opinion in ACLU v. Zeh, the state’s highest court corrected a lower court decision that would have weakened free-speech protections codified by Georgia’s anti-SLAPP statute.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation partnered with the University of Georgia School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic in April 2021 on a friend-of-the-court brief in ACLU v. Zeh, arguing that the Court of Appeals of Georgia failed to apply the “actual malice” standard when determining whether a defamation lawsuit against the ACLU survived a motion to strike under Georgia’s anti-SLAPP statute. It expanded upon a previous friend-of-the-court brief filed in July 2020.

In 2016, the foundation supported efforts by CNN and other media companies to curb SLAPPs in the state. The resulting law was the most effective legislative protection of free speech rights in Georgia in 20 years.

Go to the First Amendment Clinic’s website for background on the case and a summary of the legal arguments.

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