The District of Columbia’s anti-SLAPP act applies to actions that arise from an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of public interest. It provides that if a party makes a prima facie showing that the case involves the type of claim to which the act applies, the court will dismiss the case–with prejudice–unless the responding party can demonstrate that the claim is likely to succeed on the merits. D.C. Code § 16-5502(a)-(b). Although there has been some uncertainty as to whether D.C.’s anti-SLAPP act applies in federal court, the emerging trend has been to find that it does. On September 27, 2013, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the District of Columbia District Court found the statute applicable to a defamation lawsuit brought by Yasser Abbas and granted the defendant’s special motion to dismiss made under its terms.
Yasser Abbas is a wealthy businessman and political emissary for his father’s regime, the Palestinian Authority (“PA”). He sued Foreign Policy Group, LLC, and journalist Jonathan Schanzer for certain statements Schanzer made in an article he had written about the sons of the Palestinian president. The article was published in the “Argument” section of Foreign Policy Magazine and questioned whether the sons of the Palestinian president were “growing rich off their father’s system” and whether they had “enriched themselves at the expense of regular Palestinians” and U.S. taxpayers.
When the defendants responded with a motion to dismiss under the anti-SLAPP act, the first question was whether D.C.’s statute even applied in federal court, a question not yet decided by D.C.’s highest court. The issue boils down to whether the anti-SLAPP statute should be viewed as substantive or procedural, as federal courts sitting in diversity apply federal procedural laws but state substantive laws. Judge Sullivan looked to other circuits and found that many interpret similar state statutes as substantive and do apply them in federal diversity cases. Notably, the D.C. Circuit has upheld a district court decision denying a special motion to dismiss under the anti-SLAPP statute because it was not timely filed. Although that decision did not specifically hold that the anti-SLAPP statute was substantive, it implied as much. With this background, Judge Sullivan was persuaded that the anti-SLAPP law applies in federal court.
To succeed on their special motion, the defendants were required to show that Mr. Abbas’ claim arose from “an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of public interest.” The court found that Mr. Abbas was a limited purpose public figure because he had voluntarily thrust himself into a role of prominence in Palestinian politics and in the controversy surrounding his wealth. Further, the question of U.S. aid to the PA and the manner in which the PA used such aid are questions that have been debated at length for years. The court held that the “level of corruption in the PA,” whether Mr. Abbas has enriched himself by virtue of his political ties, and whether his wealth can be traced to U.S. tax dollars are issues of public (not private) interest. Accordingly, the court held that the defendants had made a prima facie showing that the defamation claim arose from an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of the public interest. The burden then shifted to Mr. Abbas to show that he was likely to succeed on the merits.
Mr. Abbas contended that the questions invited his colleagues and the world to wonder if he has enriched himself at the expense of others. He argued that, while posed as questions, the statements could be read as assertions of fact, falsely accusing him of using wrongful and possibly criminal means to accumulate wealth. The defendants responded that the article merely raised unanswered questions, and that even if they could be interpreted as assertions, the statements were pure opinion and therefore non-actionable.
The court agreed with the defendants, finding that the questions posed in the article could not reasonably be interpreted as statements of fact. The court found that the questions merely invite the reader to form an independent opinion as to the relationship between the Abbas family and its wealth, which invitation is “the paradigm of a properly functioning press.”
Even if the questions were capable of defamatory meaning, the court held that they were statements of opinion protected by the First Amendment. The factual basis for the article’s questions was outlined with statements and hyperlinked source material. This put the reader on notice that the piece was one of opinion. Also, the article appeared in the Argument section of the Foreign Policy Group website–a place where readers expect to find opinion pieces.
The court held that Mr. Abbas failed to meet his burden of proving that he was likely to prevail on the merits. Accordingly, the court granted the defendants’ special motion to dismiss.