MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Democrats on Tuesday proposed barring the use of expensive, sham lawsuits to silence criticism after a Republican state senator was accused of trying to bankrupt a local news outlet for reporting on his alleged use of a homophobic slur.
The Wausau Pilot & Review reported in 2021 that local businessman Cory Tomczyk, who became a state senator in January, called a 13-year-old boy a homophobic slur during a city meeting where the boy testified in support of a diversity and inclusion measure that had sparked divides in the northern Wisconsin community.
Tomczyk denied using the slur and sued the newspaper for defamation. In the course of that lawsuit, three people who were present at the meeting swore that they heard Tomczyk use the word. In a deposition, Tomczyk also admitted to having used the word on other occasions, The New York Times reported. A judge ultimately dismissed the case in April, saying Tomczyk had not proven that the paper defamed him.
The legal proceedings have cost the small, nonprofit news site close to $200,000 so far, its founder and editor Shereen Siewert told The Associated Press on Wednesday. When Tomczyk filed to appeal the case in June, Siewert's worries grew.
“He knows we’re a small news organization. He knows we don’t have deep pockets and that continuing to fight this lawsuit is very damaging to us financially and could shut us down,” she said.
Tomczyk's office declined to comment on the bill or the lawsuit, and his attorney Matthew Fernholz did not immediately return a phone call on Wednesday.
The Wausau Pilot & Review’s four-person newsroom has an annual budget of roughly $185,000, according to Siewert. Mounting legal expenses have already forced the news site to put off plans to hire an additional reporter. The burden has only begun to ease in the past week after the news site's story gained national attention and a GoFundMe page brought in roughly $100,000 in contributions.
The bill Democrats unveiled Tuesday would allow people to ask a judge to dismiss a lawsuit against them if they believe the suit is a baseless challenge over their exercise of free speech. If the judge finds that the case doesn't have a probability of succeeding, they can dismiss the lawsuit and order the person that filed it to pay the opposing party's attorney's fees.
“It takes a lot of stamina to stand up against this type of political coercion,” bill sponsor Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard said. “Even if the suit is not viable, which is the case with Sen. Tomczyk’s lawsuit, the cost and the stress associated with these frivolous, lengthy litigation processes are oftentimes enough to create chilling effects.”
The kinds of meritless lawsuits targeted by the bill are commonly referred to as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP. At least 31 states and the District of Columbia already have anti-SLAPP laws on the books, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“This is long overdue,” Siewert said. “I’m incredibly grateful that this legislation is being proposed to protect journalists and small news organizations like ours in the future.”
In the GOP-controlled state Legislature, however, the bill is unlikely to pass. At a Democratic news conference announcing the measure, Bill Lueders, president of the non-partisan Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, called on Republicans to support it.
“The defense of transparency is not a partisan issue," he said. “Local news outlets are absolutely vital to the important business of having an informed electorate, and yet the challenges that news outlets face have never been greater.”
Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Harm on Twitter.