TRENTON — New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has signed a bill that will make it easier for state judges to dismiss frivolous civil lawsuits seeking to intimidate or silence detractors.

The Uniform Public Expression Protection Act, which passed the state Legislature with bipartisan support, will allow defendants to ask the courts to speed up the dismissal of so-called SLAPP suits, or strategic lawsuits against public participation, which often slog through the judicial system at a substantial cost to the defendants.

A SLAPP is generally a meritless civil action — like a defamation lawsuit — filed against whistleblowers, community activists, reporters and other individuals who speak out about public issues and concerns. Critics say the civil actions are filed with the intent that the defendants will incur substantial costs in defending themselves.

'The powerful abuse the justice system'

Murphy said the new law will improve democracy and free speech in the public discourse and protect individuals "who have been unfairly targeted by these lawsuits over the years."

"For far too long, the powerful have abused the justice system to suppress free speech through illegitimate lawsuits," Murphy said in a statement. "By pursuing meritless court cases, these powerful parties aim to silence their critics by making it impossible for those with fewer resources to spend the time and money necessary to legally defend themselves.

Bipartisan support for measure

One of the bill's architects, state Sen. Jon Brammick, R-Union, said the new law will allow New Jersians "to exercise their First Amendment rights without the fear of being overwhelmed by legal proceedings."

Another co-sponsor, state Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, D-Jersey City, said the measure protects free speech by "handing back the microphone and the pen and providing a powerful remedy so that journalists and citizens can confidently speak up without fear of unwarranted retribution.”

“Money and power shouldn't be tools to muzzle the voices of critics and whistleblowers," he said. "While our democracy thrives on free speech, frivolous SLAPP lawsuits aim to stifle that freedom."

ACLU, media organizations support

The changes were backed by the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, New Jersey Press Association and other good government and First Amendment groups.

"Journalists must be able to report stories about matters of public interest without fear that the subjects of their coverage will target them or their newsroom with costly, baseless legal proceedings," said Lisa Zycherman, deputy legal director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

"These kinds of protections are vital to preserving the unflinching journalism that informs communities, exposes wrongdoing, and holds public figures and officials accountable."

SLAPP laws in other states, federal level

The new law is modeled on a 2020 proposal approved by the Uniform Law Commission, a national, non-partisan group that advocates for the uniformity of state laws.

With Murphy's signature, New Jersey becomes one of 33 states with anti-SLAPP laws, according to the Public Participation Project, a nonpartisan advocacy group.

In Congress, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, filed a bill last year to create a federal anti-SLAPP law with national, uniform rules instead of the current patchwork of state laws.

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