Since the #MeToo movement went viral in late 2017, a number of once-powerful celebrities have become synonymous with sexual abuse: Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Matt Lauer, etc.
A once-powerful celebrity you might not immediately recognize is Victor Mignogna. “Vic” to his rabid fans, Mignogna is a former star in the anime industry known for providing the voice of popular characters in the Fullmetal Alchemist and Dragon Ball franchises. And like many of those #MeToo household names, Mignogna was called out for spending the better part of two decades sexually harassing a number of women and girls, including two of his coworkers.
The fallout of his exposure was swift. Mignogna was dropped from one production company, then by another, as more women shared their stories about him on social media. But then Mignogna took a different approach than the men before him: He filed a defamation lawsuit against his victims in Texas, claiming his accusers damaged his reputation by describing their abuse at his hands.
This sort of tactic—attempting to silence someone by suing them—is known as a strategic lawsuit against public participation. SLAPPs use civil litigation to intimidate critics by sapping their time, money, and morale. And the use of SLAPPs has grown alongside the growth of social media. Just in the last year, a doctor sued a patient in New York for $1 million after the woman left a negative review on Yelp, a Missouri man was sued for leaving a three-star TripAdvisor review of a theme park he visited, and a South Carolina restaurant sued a customer after she posted on Facebook that the restaurant’s new management would not honor the owner’s coupons.
But SLAPP suits are particularly vexatious when they are against the victims of sexual assault.
Consider the case of Megan (not her real name), a woman I represented a few years ago. Megan was a member of a local organization in which one of the group’s leaders, Lawrence, came up behind her, reached his arms around her torso, and squeezed both of her breasts. Although Megan never called the police, she notified the other leaders in the organization. Lawrence was expelled. And he then filed a lawsuit against the organization’s other leaders for expelling him—and against Megan for “defaming” him.
Megan had to find an attorney and endure nearly a year of litigation, including answering invasive discovery questions and sitting through a daylong deposition where she was forced to answer still more invasive questions on camera. She won later that year; Lawrence’s lawsuit was rejected. But not before Megan had to repeatedly relive the trauma of being attacked.
Vic Mignogna’s accusers have an advantage that Megan did not: Texas is one of twenty-nine states to enact state laws to punish the use of SLAPPs, known as anti-SLAPP statutes. The Texas Citizens Participation Act provides for an expedited review of SLAPP suits, empowering the court to dismiss them in as little as two months after filing. More importantly, Texas’s anti-SLAPP statute requires a judge to levy sanctions on any plaintiff filing a bumptious SLAPP suit in an amount “sufficient to deter the party … from bringing similar actions” in the future, plus forcing them to pay the victim’s attorney fees, court costs, and all other expenses incurred to defend themselves.
Anti-SLAPPs are a vital tool to protect the First Amendment rights of victims, and robust versions have been enacted in states as red as Texas and as blue as California. Even several of our neighboring states use them:
Georgia’s 1996 anti-SLAPP statute was substantially expanded in 2016, and Tennessee’s first meaningful anti-SLAPP statute went into effect last month.
But for Tar Heels like Megan, our legislators have offered them no protection at all whatsoever. Our politicians dawdle while assault victims get SLAPPed in court—and the continued legislative inaction is inexcusable.
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