Fees Awarded Under Virginia’s Anti-SLAPP Statute By Federal Court 

Virginia’s anti-SLAPP statute has received a lot of flak for supposedly not being strong enough to deter frivolous defamation actions designed to chill the exercise of First Amendment rights. A case decided last week down in Roanoke, however, demonstrates that just because fee awards are discretionary does not mean that fees won’t be awarded in appropriate circumstances. When a local family sued Black Lives Matter Franklin County and its Director, Bridgette Craighead, for statements she made about race relations in an ABC News segment, the court found the statements had nothing to do with the plaintiffs, were not defamatory, and were protected by the First Amendment. Because the case was utterly frivolous, the court awarded attorneys’ fees under the anti-SLAPP statute.

In the case of Crystal Minnix v. Sinclair Television Group, the segment at issue was titled “Cops’ role in Jan. 6 attack divides Virginia town with ties to Confederacy.” The focus of the story was on the Rocky Mount community’s reaction to the news that two of its law enforcement officers were apparently at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. For a duration of roughly four seconds during the video segment, the story included footage of a red, white and blue house owned by the plaintiffs while a voiceover states, “Rocky Mount is predominantly white and politically conservative.” Immediately preceding the display of the plaintiffs’ house, a reporter is shown interviewing Ms. Craighead in which Craighead says, “It’s their land and their country and we just live in it.”

The plaintiffs did not appreciate their house being included in the story, so they sued Craighead, Black Lives Matter Franklin County, the reporters, and the news organizations running the story, for $67,000,000 and other remedies. According to them, Ms. Craighead’s statements, taken in the context of the news story as a whole, implied the following about them:

  • that the plaintiffs were tied to the violence in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021
  • that they were “associated with the Confederacy”
  • that they were Trump supporters
  • that their red, white and blue house was “an inhospitable place for people of color,” and
  • that the residents of the house, including seven children, were “violent insurrectionists” and “rebelling Confederacy supporters”
The court began its analysis with, “[t]he plaintiffs have no possibility of success against the Local defendants on any of their claims. Beyond briefly appearing in the same Segment, Craighead’s interview is utterly unconnected to the Minnix family, its members, or their home.” That pretty much sums up why the court decided to dismiss the case and award legal fees under the anti-SLAPP statute, but the opinion does continue in great detail outlining the “litany of reasons” the complaint was deficient. Such as…

No provably false factual connotation. Statements of opinion are not actionable. To state a valid claim for defamation, one must present facts showing that the defendant made a statement that was not merely a personal opinion but that contained express or implied factual assertions about the plaintiff. Craighead was merely expressing an opinion.

No statement “of and concerning” the plaintiffs. You can’t sue someone for defamation if the statement at issue wasn’t even about you. Courts look to how an objective, reasonable viewer (or listener) would interpret the challenged statement to determine whether this test has been met. Here, the court found that no reasonable person would interpret Craighead’s statements as an assertion about anything about any member of the Minnix family.

The First Amendment protected the statements. The First Amendment protects “statements on matters of public concern that fail to contain a provably false factual connotation.” (See Snyder v. Phelps, 580 F.3d 206, 219 (4th Cir. 2009)). A statement involves a matter of public concern “when it involves an issue of social, political, or other interest to a community.” Rhetorical hyperbole is also protected. The court found that Craighead’s statement was both hyperbolic and on a matter of public concern (i.e., the effects on her community of the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection). Her statement was therefore constitutionally protected.

Any time you’re dealing with a statement protected by the First Amendment, the anti-SLAPP statute potentially kicks in. The anti-SLAPP statute provides immunity to defendants who made such a statement unless the statement was made with actual or constructive knowledge of falsity. Here, the court found that Ms. Craighead made no such statement and was therefore entitled to immunity. Fee awards are not required under the statute but, the court held, are appropriate where the action is “frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.” This was such a case. (Note: The Magistrate Judge ultimately recommended an award of $6,514.00.)


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