ATLANTA — In a narrow decision, the Georgia Supreme Court limited the scope of a state law that's aimed at preventing speech-stifling lawsuits.
The 4-3 ruling, which held that the law covers only free speech linked to official proceedings, was met with criticism by First Amendment advocates but lauded by others who said the statute was being misused.
Yesterday's decision upheld an earlier ruling from the Georgia Court of Appeals that refused to expand the scope of the state's anti-SLAPP law, which was passed in 1996 to encourage citizens to speak up on matters of public interest and cut down on "strategic lawsuits against public participation."
The case focused on Shirley Berryhill, a woman who was sued for libel by Georgia Community Support & Solutions after she claimed on a Web site and in e-mails that the nonprofit mistreated her mentally disabled son.
The issue before the court was not whether Berryhill was telling the truth — although the group said her accusations were malicious and incorrect — but whether the anti-SLAPP law would protect her from the lawsuit.
Writing for the majority in Berryhill v. Georgia Community Support and Solutions, Inc., Justice Georgia H. Carley ruled it would not, saying the Court of Appeals "correctly refused to expand the scope of the anti-SLAPP statute beyond its terms." He was joined by Justices Hugh P. Thompson, Harris Hines and Harold Melton in his decision.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Robert Benham argued that the limits placed on the statute have "eviscerated the protections" of the law and warned the public has "now lost the protection intended by the General Assembly." He was joined by Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears and Presiding Justice Carol Hunstein in the dissent.
In court, lawyers from the nonprofit argued the law was designed to protect reputation and that Berryhill, who sent the claims to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, crossed the line.
Richard Witterman, the group's attorney, contended the law was being used as a tool to shield from defamation instead of protecting the public from overly litigious corporations.
"This is a really delicate area," he said. "You've got to balance out those rights."
Torin Togut, Berryhill's lawyer, said the ruling robbed ordinary citizens of free- speech protections and warned that those who speak up on matters of public interest would no longer be protected from defamation lawsuits unless they're linked to official proceedings.
He was echoed by Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. She said the ruling heralded an "unfortunate shift" away from protecting free-speech rights in Georgia.
"This limitation of the anti-SLAPP statute's reach may force citizens to choose silence over speech," she said.