The speech of others: the Washington Supreme Court issues an important decision on our anti-SLAPP law

Henne v. City of Yakima, No. 89674-7 (Wash. Jan. 22, 2015).

Washington’s anti-SLAPP law is designed to protect speakers against frivolous lawsuits that are meant to pressure them to shut up. The legislature expanded the law in 2010 to authorize the early dismissal of certain cases that are “based on an action involving public participation and petition.” This case presents the Washington Supreme Court with one of its first opportunities to construe that expanded law. 

Michael Henne is a police officer with the city of Yakima. Several other officers filed complaints about him, and these complaints generated internal investigations of his behavior. Henne then sued the city for negligence, alleging that the city had incompetently hired, trained, and supervised the officers. This negligence, claimed Henne, allowed the officers to file complaints and thereby create a hostile workplace for him. 

Yakima asked the trial court to dismiss Henne’s case under the anti-SLAPP law. Yakima argued that Henne’s claims were based on the speech of his coworkers, so the anti-SLAPP statute applied to his case. Yakima, in other words, was using the speech of third parties to the lawsuit—the complaining officers—to invoke the protections of the anti-SLAPP law. 

Under the anti-SLAPP law, can a defendant do this? That is, can a defendant rely on somebody else’s “public participation and petition” to dismiss a lawsuit? 

The Washington Supreme Court answers that question in the negative. Looking at the statute as a whole, the court shows why the anti-SLAPP law does not allow a defendant to shield itself using the speech of third parties.