Social justice organizations unite to fight devastating ruling on California’s anti-SLAPP statute
Today, a coalition of advocacy groups filed an amicus letter to the California Supreme Court in support of this case, written by the First Amendment Coalition and signed by Greenpeace USA, ACLU of Northern California, Amazon Watch, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and many more.
In March of 2021, four activists bravely disrupted the horse races taking place at Golden Gate Fields, the second deadliest track in California, locking themselves to each other and laying on the track for over six hours. In response, the billionaire-owned track sued not only those four individuals but also Direct Action Everywhere, a 501c3 non-profit. The reasons given for suing Direct Action Everywhere in the lawsuit - broadcasting the action on Facebook, gathering petition signatures to shut down the track, and protesting on the public sidewalk - are all constitutionally protected activities.
This is a classic tactic to silence critics. Wealthy corporations have historically launched frivolous lawsuits against protestors, knowing they won’t actually win, but counting on the fact that fighting lawsuits is so costly and time-consuming that it would intimidate and hamstring the protestors from continuing their activities. These lawsuits are known as SLAPPs: Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Because of this, California has an anti-SLAPP statute, designed to prevent this from happening. If a “SLAPP suit” is filed, the defendants can file an anti-SLAPP motion and, if they win, the plaintiffs have to pay large sums of money to the defendant’s attorney. Golden Gate Fields’ lawsuit against Direct Action Everywhere is a SLAPP suit.
Given these facts, Direct Action Everywhere’s attorney, Matthew Strugar, filed an anti-SLAPP motion against Golden Gate Fields. While the initial tentative ruling was in our favor, the judge ended up siding with Golden Gate Fields and dismissed the motion. We tried again at the Court of Appeals and once again the judges sided with Golden Gate Fields. In their ruling, they argued that an organization could be held vicariously liable for someone else’s “illegal” act, even without supporting evidence.
This is a huge blow to the anti-SLAPP protections California supposedly offers. It completely undermines the protection that organizations have from these lawsuits and encourages wealthy corporations to sue their critics for anything that someone else does. This may chill organizations from supporting direct action activities and threatens to bankrupt them as they are forced to fight these unjust lawsuits. Because of how important this case is, we decided to keep fighting, and filed a petition for review to the California Supreme Court.
While these are scary times, it has been heartening to see how many individuals and organizations have joined this fight and supported our petition. Today, a coalition of advocacy groups filed an amicus letter to the California Supreme Court in support of this case, written by the First Amendment Coalition and signed by Greenpeace USA, ACLU of Northern California, Amazon Watch, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Civil Liberties Defense Center, Climate Defense Project, Mosquito Fleet, Rainforest Action Network, First Amendment Project, PETA, Oil & Gas Action Network, Portland Rising Tide, EarthRights International, and International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR). While we focus on different causes, we all have an interest in protecting free speech, dismantling corporate power, and fighting for justice.
The California Supreme Court is set to review our petition on October 5th, and we may hear that day whether they agree to take up the case. The good news is that we remain undeterred. DxE SF Bay Area has continued to protest Golden Gate Fields and exposed their exploitation in the mainstream media. Political candidates has begun to chime in. Win or lose, activists will continue to campaign against Golden Gate Fields until the track has shut down and horse racing is no longer.