Weatherford Democrat

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October 8, 2012

State Supreme Court may hear local defamation case

— The Supreme Court of Texas has been asked to weigh in on an issue involving a defamation lawsuit filed by Parker County-based WallBuilders’ founder David Barton against two former Texas State Board of Education candidates.

Judy A. Jennings and Rebecca Bell-Metereau, Democratic candidates for the SBOE in 2010, asked that the suit be dismissed under a new Texas law intended to protect against lawsuits attempting to silence free speech, or “strategic lawsuits against public participation.”

It’s the first time an appeals court has interpreted how the new state law works, Julie Ford, an attorney for Jennings and Bell-Metereau, told the Democrat.

“We’re hoping that the supreme court can give us some guidance on how this new statute works,” Ford said.

“Defendants across the state are relying on this new statute,” attorneys for Jennings and Bell-Metereau stated in the petition filed last week requesting the state’s highest court look at the issue. “The question of whether appellate protections are available when a person is sued for exercising their constitutional rights ‘to petition, speak freely, associate freely and otherwise participate in government’ is one of such importance that it should be decided by this court.”

Though the First Amendment protecting free speech does set up a high burden for those suing for libel, but the new law attempts to weed out cases without merit before money is spent on lawyers, as well as protect those with meritorious cases, Ford said.

It’s a far-reaching law with a lot of protections, according to Ford.

If a motion is filed within 60 days, the law, which took affect in June 2011, allows the judge to dismiss a frivolous case.

In February, Judge Graham Quisenberry of the 415th District Court denied the motion to dismiss the case under the anti-SLAPP law and Jennings and Bell-Metereau appealed his decision to the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth.

The Fort Worth court dismissed the appeal on Aug. 16, finding that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the appeal based on the law’s wording.

Attorneys for Jennings and Bell-Metereau have asked the state’s highest court to hear the issue, arguing that the legislature never intended to deny the opportunity of appeal.  

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