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It took three years of litigation, but Texas developer H. Walker Royall has finally ended his defamation suit against author Carla Main and publisher Encounter Books (which is also my publisher on Schools for Misrule). Main’s book Bulldozed had been critical of the use of eminent domain in land takeovers, and in particular of its use in a deal in Freeport, Texas. The case helped prompt the Texas legislature to enact stronger protections for defendants against so-called SLAPP suits, a development long overdue in some other states as well. [Roger Kimball, Houston Chronicle; Jacob Sullum; earlier]

My new post at Cato at Liberty celebrates investigative journalist Carla Main’s substantial victory at a Texas appeals court against a Dallas developer who didn’t like what she’d written about him in her critique of eminent domain, Bulldozed. Ted at Point of Law rounds up more links and reactions and points out that Texas is fortunate to have a relatively strong “anti-SLAPP” law protecting those who speak out on public issues from intimidation through litigation.

Unfortunately, as Ted writes, “there are dozens of other states where those who criticize the rich face tremendous risk of meritless libel suits to shut down their free speech rights.” For example, to its shame, the state of Pennsylvania has a desperately weak anti-SLAPP law which per Harvard’s Citizen Media Law Project “only applies to those petitioning the government over environmental issues.” It’s past time for lawmakers in Harrisburg and other state capitols to take needed legislative action to protect free speech from the silencing threat of litigation.

P.S. Jacob Sullum has this to say:

In our system of justice, rich people with thin skins don’t need any evidence to drag their critics into an expensive, time-consuming, anxiety-provoking legal process that lasts for years. For any journalist who has ever wondered whether he could be sued over something he wrote that reflected badly on someone (which some of us do several times a day), the answer is yes: You can be sued over anything. The suit may not be legally successful, but if the plaintiff’s goal is to punish you for the offense you caused him and make you (and everyone else) think twice before writing about him again, he wins whether or not he ultimately can prevail in court.

How very true.

The First Amendment notwithstanding, wealthy and powerful litigants in this country often exercise the tactical power “to bully those who publicly criticize them into silence by filing frivolous lawsuits that the critics can’t afford to litigate,” with defamation lawsuits being a particularly favored means of such bullying. The majority of states have moved to enact “anti-SLAPP” laws aimed at curtailing this tactical exercise through the application of sanctions or otherwise, but such laws are often quite weak, sometimes applying only, for example, to speech aimed at petitioning the government on public matters. Now Texas lawmakers are considering what would be one of the nation’s strongest laws, protecting “communication made in connection with a matter of public concern” and including statements made in non-public forums, such as emails. The website SLAPPED in Texas has compiled a list of speech-chilling lawsuits in the Lone Star State, including the oft-criticized suit by a real estate developer against author and eminent domain critic Carla Main. [Arthur Bright/Citizen Media Law, Paul Alan Levy/CL&P]

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As readers will recall, Texas developer H. Walker Royall sued journalist Carla Main and her publisher, Encounter Books, over Bulldozed, a critique of eminent domain which includes commentary critical of Royall’s dealings. (Note: Encounter Books is also the publisher of my forthcoming book, Schools for Misrule.) The case is now before a Dallas judge, and getting more publicity. (Dallas Observer, including brief and response by the parties, and more; David Rittgers at Cato). The WSJ’s William McGurn interviewed Royall and quotes him as saying that he objects (inter alia) to being portrayed as someone who “wants to silence anyone who wants to talk about [the controversy].” Why might anyone have gotten that impression of him? Well, one reason might be that, in addition to filing a suit demanding that Carla Main’s book be pulled off the market, and another suit against a local paper and its book reviewer over a review of the book — that one was settled — Royall also sued famed law professor Richard Epstein, who’d given a blurb to the book. (A judge dismissed Epstein from the case.)

From the Dallas Observer’s reporting:

John Kramer, with the Institute for Justice, says defamation suits against people speaking out against eminent domain are increasingly common. “We’ve actually seen an unfortunate trend across the country, in Tennessee, Missouri, and Washington State,” he says, over speech, a newspaper ad and a “multi-story permanent sign that said, ‘End eminent domain abuse.’”

More from IJ here. And Morgan Smith at Texas Tribune discusses efforts in the Texas legislature to secure more protection for free speech against aggressive lawsuits.

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George Will on the H. Walker Royall/Carla Main case (in which one of the defendants, Encounter Books, is also a publisher of mine). Earlier here, here, and here.

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January 30 roundup

by Walter Olson on January 30, 2009

  • Irvine, California class-action lawyer Sandeep Baweja: sorry, I bet the class’s $2.7M wage/hour settlement on the stock market and lost it [ABA Journal, WageLaw]
  • Litigant alleges his iPod playlist is worth $1 trillion; also, another kicked-by-exotic-dancer lawsuit [Lowering the Bar]
  • Lawyers representing victims of Long Island’s “Agape” Ponzi scheme would do well to be modest [Scott Greenfield]
  • More on that litigation filed by Dallas developer H. Walker Royall against author Carla Main, who wrote a book critical of eminent domain abuse; her publisher, Encounter Books (which is also publishing a book of mine); a reviewer, and his newspaper; and even eminent scholar Richard Epstein, for giving a blurb [Real Clear Politics, Somin @ Volokh, Sullum/Reason "Hit and Run", earlier]
  • “OMG, there’s mercury in the high-fructose corn syrup!” scare doesn’t sound very scare-worthy [Coyote]
  • Another reason we (sometimes) go too far in search of safety: “Availability Bias and Water Landings” [Cernovich]
  • Supreme Court mulls whether to grant certiorari on Bilski (business methods patent) case [SCOTUS Blog]
  • Trial judge lops $32 million off that $55 million verdict against San Diego Gas & Electric for helicopter crash into unlit utility tower [CalBizLit]

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Royall pain to his critics

by Walter Olson on December 10, 2008

Jacob Sullum at Reason “Hit and Run” (Dec. 10):

I want to write a blog post about H. Walker Royall, the Dallas developer who sues people when they criticize his abuse of eminent domain, but I’m afraid he’ll sue me. After all, he sued Wright Gore III over a website that detailed the city of Freeport’s attempt to condemn land occupied by the Western Seafood Company, a business owned by Gore’s family, so Royall could use it for a luxury marina project. And he sued Carla Main, a journalist who wrote a book about the legal struggle over the Gores’ land, along with her publisher, Encounter Books [also a publisher of mine -- W.O.]. He sued University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein, one of the country’s leading authorities on eminent domain, for writing a blurb that appeared on the cover of Main’s book. He even sued two newspapers that published reviews of the book.

So after thinking carefully about my potential legal exposure, I have decided not to say that Royall…

I can’t go on. I just can’t. I’m so scared of Royall that I can’t even repeat the colorful epithets that Sullum might apply to Royall if he dared (which he doesn’t) for fear that Royall will then find some excuse to sue me too. But you can go read them if you dare. More: Tim Sandefur, PLF on Eminent Domain.

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