Legislation championed by a Richmond senator passed Virginia’s Senate on Tuesday in response to a defamation suit filed by a former Richmond Public Schools principal in 2014. The lawsuit stemmed from a letter published by Style.
“I had a group of individuals in my district who wrote a private letter to their superintendent making comments about a principal,” Republican Sen. Glen Sturtevant said. “A weekly newspaper of all things actually published that letter, and then this group of parents from a local school were sued by that principal.”
The former principal at Lucille M. Brown Middle School, Denise Lewis, sued four parents who signed the critical letter, published online in conjunction with a July 2013 story. The $3.5 million lawsuit went to the Virginia Supreme Court, which affirmed a previous dismissal.
“They had to hire lawyers throughout that process to defend them,” Sturtevant said from the floor of the Senate. The letter and lawsuit happened while Sturtevant served on the Richmond School Board. He was elected to the Senate in 2015.
The parents’ legal bills approached $40,000, says former School Board member and occasional Style contributor Carol A.O. Wolf, who helped lead a charge for the legislation.
Sturtevant’s bill adds defamation to the causes of action from which a resident is immune when making statements regarding matters of public concern. It expands on a law that protects people from being sued for comments made at public meetings to include statements made through a third party, like a newspaper.
“All these parents did was write a letter to the superintendent after three years of meetings,” Wolf says. “Parents shouldn’t run a risk for being involved in their child’s education.”
The bill is what Sturtevant and Wolf call anti-SLAPP legislation, an acronym that stands for strategic lawsuit against public participation.
“This bill would disincentivise public officials from seeking to stifle free speech with these strategic lawsuits,” Sturtevant said.
Roberts & Associates represented Lewis, and Andrew T. Bodoh, a lawyer for the firm, says the bill would have been a serious obstacle to Lewis’ case.
But Bodoh warns that this “knee-jerk legislation” has broader implications for someone whose reputation is at stake.
“In a time when Virginians are legitimately concerned about fake news and the ‘alternative facts’ spread though social media and the Internet,” he says in an email, “this bill would close the courthouse doors to many people who want to prove the truth and restore their damaged reputation.”
The bill passed the Senate 38-2, and a similar bill sponsored by Delegate Terry Kilgore, a Republican from Southwest Virginia, passed the House 74-23. The two will be reconciled and sent to the governor for final approval.
“It shouldn’t be a Democrat or Republican thing,” Wolf says. “It’s: Are we going to protect the average citizen from participating in the democratic process?”
Bodoh notes that he represents both defendants and plaintiffs in such defamation cases and fears this law disrupts a “careful balance” Virginia has reached around honest and open discourse.
“Defamation cases are difficult to win, and often hurtful to the plaintiff to bring,” he writes. “But for the people who are innocently accused, it may be all they have.”
Lewis was reassigned and later left the school system. Style was unable to reach her for comment.
Sturtevant shepherded a similar bill through the Senate last year but it failed to be heard in the House of Delegates.