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Lawyers defending a biographer of Otis Redding have failed to block a libel suit using Georgia’s anti-SLAPP statute. Judge Patsy Y. Porter of Fulton County State Court on Friday dispatched the lawyers’ arguments in a six-sentence order. She denied that the state law against Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation protected author Scott Freeman, a former senior editor of Atlanta Magazine, from a $15 million suit claiming that his book “Otis!” included unsubstantiated “street rumors” and lies. The state General Assembly in 1996 passed the anti-SLAPP measure to protect citizens from suits filed to silence speech about matters of “public interest or concern.” The law, O.C.G.A. �9-11-11.1, commonly is used to defend not defamation suits but claims against public critics of government entities or operations. At issue in this case was whether Freeman’s biography of the late soul singer met the law’s definition of “public interest or concern.” Redding’s widow, Zelma Redding, and his former business manager, Philip Walden Sr., last year sued Freeman and his publisher, St. Martin’s Press. Among the passages in the book that the plaintiffs objected to was Freeman’s reporting on page 217 of the paperback version. Freeman wrote of “unsubstantiated theories floating around” that Walden hired someone — possibly a member of the Mafia in Cleveland — to sabotage Otis Redding’s plane so that Walden could collect a $1 million life insurance policy on Redding before the singer could leave his employ, according to the suit. Redding died Dec. 10, 1967, when his plane crashed into Lake Monona as it approached the Madison, Wis., airport in bad weather. Five other people also died in the crash. The flight originated in Cleveland. NO DISMISSAL According to the lawyers representing Freeman and St. Martin’s Press — Peter C. Canfield, Thomas M. Clyde and Christopher L. Meazell, all of Dow, Lohnes & Albertson — the suit fell under the anti-SLAPP statute and ought to have been dismissed for failure to verify the complaint as required by O.C.G.A. �9-11-11.1. But Porter’s order on Friday denied those arguments. Walden v. Freeman, No. 04VS064224 (Fult. St. June 3, 2005). “The judge took a common sense approach to the plain reading and legislative purpose of this statute and applied it to the facts in this case,” said Terry D. Jackson, an Atlanta attorney who — along with Bobby Lee Cook of Summerville, Ga.’s Cook & Connelly and Philip M. Walden Jr., the plaintiff’s son, of Jones & Walden — represents Redding and Walden. The next step in the case will be to begin discovery, Jackson said. “This will likely not be the last attempt by those who defend media outlets or newspapers from trying to stretch the purpose of the SLAPP statute around ordinary libel claims in order to give those defendants another weapon in their arsenal to dismiss defamatory comments,” Jackson added. Clyde said Friday that using the SLAPP statute was a legitimate defense. “The Legislature enacted the SLAPP statute to protect speech, in whatever form, including books. It’s not a weapon, it’s a legal defense,” he wrote in an e-mail. Freeman could not be reached for an interview. The suit seeks damages of $15 million, as well as litigation costs from Freeman and St. Martin’s Press, for the allegedly libelous statements in the book. The suit also includes a claim for tortious interference with contractual and business relations. The elder Walden and Zelma Redding have optioned the film rights for a screenplay about Otis Redding’s life story to Universal Studios. The book, the suit says, has damaged their chances of getting a movie contract. SAME DEFENDANT, DIFFERENT CASE In outlining the jurisdiction of the anti-SLAPP law for their briefs to the judge, Jackson, Cook and the younger Walden recounted language from a similar libel case that, coincidentally, also featured Freeman as a defendant. That suit arose from an article written by Freeman for Atlanta Magazine in the December 1997 issue. In that case, the plaintiff’s son had been arrested for murder, and he alleged that Freeman accused him of interfering with the investigation by calling in favors from Fulton prosecutors. Davis v. Emmis Publishing Corp., 244 Ga. App. 795 (2000). The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the suit’s dismissal based on the statute of limitations, but Judge Frank M. Eldridge, now retired, wrote a special concurrence to point out that the anti-SLAPP statute would not apply to the case. “The free speech under the Act involves public debate and petition for redress of grievances involving significant public interest as opposed to freedom of the press in general,” the judge wrote. Eldridge went on to write that the anti-SLAPP statute “was never intended to protect the media from tort liability, which already enjoy extensive statutory and constitutional protections from tort liability.”

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