Allegation of ‘Conspiracy’ Not Enough to Evade Free-Speech Protections

In amicus brief, FAC urges California appeal court to preserve anti-SLAPP protections 

Case: Golden Gate Land Holdings v. Direct Action Everywhere, No. A163315

Court: California’s First District Court of Appeal 

About the case: The operators of Golden Gate Fields, a horse racing track in Berkeley, California, brought a lawsuit against four individuals who engaged in civil disobedience by trespassing on the track. In addition to suing the individuals, the plaintiffs named as a defendant Direct Action Everywhere, an animal-rights organization, under a theory of vicarious liability.

Direct Action Everywhere committed no inherently unlawful acts. Instead, it promoted a petition to shut down the track and engaged in other protected speech. The complaint alleged the organization conspired with and aided and abetted the law-breaking activists but cited no evidence to support that assertion. The organization therefore filed a motion to strike the track’s claims against it, seeking protection from the California anti-SLAPP law, which is designed to guard against strategic lawsuits against public participation and prevent the chilling effect on speech imposed by the cost of defending meritless litigation. The trial court denied the motion, ruling that a plaintiff may circumvent the anti-SLAPP statute simply by pleading a conclusory assertion that a defendant engaged in speech of public concern is vicariously liable for the unlawful actions of others, absent any allegation or proof that the defendant specifically authorized, directed, or ratified those actions, as required by the First Amendment. 

Our position: The First District Court of Appeals should reverse the trial court’s order denying the anti-SLAPP motion of Direct Action Everywhere and remand to the trial court to decide whether the plaintiffs have shown sufficient merit to survive anti-SLAPP review. 

From the brief: “Without proof that the defendants specifically authorized, directed, or ratified the property damage, the claims against them would be transparently meritless,” FAC Legal Director David Loy wrote in the amicus brief. “Yet the trial court’s ruling would force any or all of them to suffer the burden and expense of defending meritless claims simply because the plaintiff invoked ‘conspiracy’ or other theories of ‘vicarious liability.’ That result would eviscerate the anti-SLAPP statute and exert a profound chilling effect on protected speech at the very core of the First Amendment.”

FAC is joined in the brief by ACLU of Northern California, Californians Aware, California News Publishers Association.

Date filed: April 19, 2022

More: Read the opening brief by Direct Action Everywhere, which is represented by Matthew Strugar.

Read FAC’s amicus brief

2022-04-19-FAC-Amicus-Application-and-Brief-1