A new law will go into effect on July 1, 2017, that creates what amounts to a qualified privilege against defamation actions for statements regarding matters of public concern that would be entitled to protection under the First Amendment. Under the amended and restated Va Code § 8.01-223.2, the immunity would be lost with respect to any statements made with actual malice (i.e., statements made with actual knowledge that they are false, or with reckless disregard for whether they are false) or “constructive knowledge” of the statements’ falsity. Significantly, because the General Assembly chose to incorporate the privilege into Virginia’s existing anti-SLAPP statute, if a defendant is successful in having a defamation case dismissed on grounds of this new statutory immunity, he may be entitled to reimbursement of his attorneys’ fees. The amendment appears to be designed to drastically expand Virginia’s anti-SLAPP statute (which had previously been limited to statements made at public hearings) and will almost certainly lead to an uptick in plea-in-bar hearings seeking quick dismissals and fee awards.
What is not yet clear to me is why “constructive knowledge” of falsity was included as an exception to the immunity. A person has constructive knowledge of a fact if, through the exercise of reasonable care, he should have known it, even if he didn’t actually know the fact. Including constructive knowledge as an exception eviscerates much of the statute’s potential deterrent effect. This is because virtually every facially valid defamation claim will involve an allegation that the defendant was had at least constructive knowledge that what he was saying was false and that he acted negligently with respect to uncovering the truth. To state a prima facie case for defamation, a private plaintiff must allege that the defendant either knew that the statement was false, or, believing the statement to be true, lacked a reasonable basis for such belief, or acted negligently in failing to determine the facts on which the publication was based. (See Lewis v. Kei, 281 Va. 715, 725 (2011)). In other words, if a plaintiff fails to allege that the defendant had at least constructive knowledge of falsity, the case will be dismissed on demurrer regardless of the anti-SLAPP immunity. On the other hand, if a plaintiff does allege (and eventually prove) constructive knowledge, the immunity will not apply. In short, it does not appear to me that there will be many situations in which this new “public concern” immunity will come into play. I suppose defendants will start opting to file pleas in bar in lieu of demurrers. We’ll have to wait and see how courts deal with this issue.