Amid the nationwide interest generated by the recent lawsuit brought by David and Mary Sills against the Southern Baptist Convention and 11 other defendants, some observers have raised a particular question: Why was this suit filed in Alabama, when none of the major parties reside there and none of the alleged misdeeds happened there?
Brent Hobbs, lead pastor at New Song Fellowship in Virginia Beach, Va., has an idea he tweeted: “Worth noting they filed in Alabama, which has no anti-SLAPP laws in place. That’s no coincidence IMO. States like that are considered safe havens for frivolous defamation suits.”
Which probably leads you to ask: What is an anti-SLAPP law? Good question.
Before we get to the “anti” component, here’s how the Public Participation Project defines SLAPPs, short for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation: “These damaging suits chill free speech and healthy debate by targeting those who communicate with their government or speak out on issues of public interest. SLAPPs are used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these baseless suits. SLAPP filers don’t go to court to seek justice. Rather, SLAPPS are intended to intimidate those who disagree with them or their activities by draining the target’s financial resources.”
The group adds: “SLAPPs are effective because even a meritless lawsuit can take years and many thousands of dollars to defend. To end or prevent a SLAPP, those who speak out on issues of public interest frequently agree to muzzle themselves, apologize, or ‘correct’ statements.”
“SLAPPs are effective because even a meritless lawsuit can take years and many thousands of dollars to defend.”
Joe Mullin, writing for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in July, said: “Plaintiffs who bring SLAPPs intend to use the high cost of litigation to harass, intimidate and silence critics who are speaking out against them. A deep-pocketed plaintiff who files a SLAPP doesn’t need to win the case on the merits — by putting financial pressure on a defendant, along with the stress and time it takes to defend a case, they can take away a person’s free speech rights.”
And Gene Besen, special counsel to the SBC, alluded to this in a written statement on the Sills case: “The SBC Executive Committee is still evaluating the specious allegations within the complaint. We intend to vigorously defend ourselves from this troubling attempt to recast an accused perpetrator as the victim of an imaginary conspiracy. We look forward to our day in court.”
Is the Sills case “frivolous” and intended to mire its 12 defendants in extended legal wrangling as a form of harassment? That depends on perspective, of course.
What is ‘frivolous’?
And that leads to the need for another definition: What is a “frivolous lawsuit”?
The Legal Information Institute explains: “A frivolous claim, often called a bad faith claim, refers to a lawsuit, motion or appeal that is intended to harass, delay or embarrass the opposition. A claim is frivolous when the claim lacks any arguable basis either in law or in fact. That means, in a frivolous claim, either: (1) the ‘factual contentions are clearly baseless,’ such as when allegations are the product of delusion or fantasy;’ or (2) ‘the claim is based on an indisputably meritless legal theory.’”
The suit brought by David and Mary Sills against a cast of characters in the SBC — claiming both he and she were defamed by a “conspiracy’ among leaders who believed Jennifer Lyell’s story that David Sills abused her over a multi-year period — includes some stark allegations. At least one of those already has been shown by a BNG investigation to be false.
According to the legal resource site Smokeball, one of the hallmarks of frivolous lawsuits is that “they’re messy. Oftentimes even the lawyer filing the frivolous lawsuit knows that the case has no merit, so they submit messy paperwork and arguments … . They may not have any intention of taking the case to court, they just want to intimidate the other party to get them to pay attention or take a certain action.”
“The Sills lawsuit is, by its conception, messy.”
The Sills lawsuit is, by its conception, messy. It lumps together 12 defendants — including individuals and entities — in a sweeping conspiracy theory. For any one of those defendants to be extracted from the case would require extensive legal representation and court fees.
Alabama and anti-SLAPP
Now, back to the definition of “anti-SLAPP.”
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press explains: “Anti-SLAPP laws provide defendants a way to quickly dismiss meritless lawsuits … filed against them for exercising their First Amendment rights. These laws aim to discourage the filing of SLAPP suits and prevent them from imposing significant litigation costs and chilling protected speech.”
As of April 2022, 32 states and the District of Columbia have anti-SLAPP laws. Those states include Kentucky and Tennessee, the two states where most of the alleged conspiracy against David and Mary Sills would have taken place. Sills was a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., during the time of the alleged abuse. Jennifer Lyell lived in Kentucky and Tennessee during the same time period. Also, the SBC is based in Nashville.
Of special note: “In April 2022, Kentucky became the second state to enact a version of the Uniform Public Expression Protection Act, a model anti-SLAPP law drafted by the Uniform Law Commission that has been introduced in several state legislatures and enacted in Washington state.”
And this: “Tennessee significantly improved its anti-SLAPP protections in 2019 to protect people from lawsuits ‘filed in response to (their) exercise of the right of free speech, right to petition, or right of association.’ The law permits defendants to file a motion to dismiss a SLAPP suit before the costly discovery process begins, immediately appeal the denial of an anti-SLAPP motion, and recover attorney’s fees if a court rules in their favor.”
“Neither Kentucky nor Tennessee are good states to file lawsuits that might be deemed ‘frivolous.’”
In other words, neither Kentucky nor Tennessee are good states to file lawsuits that might be deemed “frivolous.”
But Alabama is another story. The Institute for Free Speech has given Alabama an “F” on its scorecard of states protecting free speech. Alabama is one of 19 states receiving a failing grade from the watchdog group.
Is that why the Sills suit was filed there?
Attorneys for David and Mary Sills anticipated their choice of venue might be questioned, and they address that in the legal document.
Under the heading “Jurisdiction and Venue,” the suit states: “This court has personal jurisdiction over the defendants. First, the defendants widely circulated their herein-described defamatory lies about Dr. and Mrs. Sills throughout Mobile County and the State of Alabama. Secondly, on information and belief, defendants SBC, the Executive Committee, and Lifeway own and maintain property, employees and/or agents in Alabama, including Mobile County, Alabama. Venue is appropriate in this court because defendant Ed Litton is a resident citizen of Mobile County, Alabama.”
Litton, an Alabama pastor who served as president of the SBC one year (June 2021 to June 2022) is the only one of the defendants who lives in Alabama.
SBC report shows how five words turn abuse victim from ‘survivor’ to ‘whore’ | Opinion by Marv Knox