Jonathan Schanzer has been documenting abuses by the Palestinian Authority for years. Little did the counterterrorism analyst expect to find himself at the sharp end of the PA's spear—not in the West Bank but on U.S. soil.
It began with a blog post. In June 2012, Mr. Schanzer, a vice president at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote an online opinion post for Foreign Policy magazine about allegations of corruption surrounding the sons of PA President Mahmoud
The response came quickly: In September 2012,
Judge Sullivan applied the District of Columbia's anti-SLAPP statute, which aims to curb "strategic lawsuits against public participation"—in other words, suits intended to silence critics. The decision is a significant victory against foreign poobahs who use Western judicial systems to muzzle commentators.
Mr. Schanzer had detailed Yasser Abbas's business empire for Foreign Policy, noting that it includes a monopoly on the distribution of some U.S. cigarette brands in the Palestinian territories; an engineering firm with offices across the Middle East that in 2005 built a sewage system in Hebron, with almost $2 million paid by the U.S. government; the chairmanship of a publicly traded insurance company; and a construction firm that has also received U.S. taxpayer funds.
Yasser Abbas is not just a successful businessman. He has served in official capacities in his father's regime: Last year Yasser delivered a message from his father to the emir of Kuwait, according to the Kuwaiti government. The Kazakh government in 2008 described him as a "special envoy" of the PA. Though Yasser's younger brother, Tarek, is less politically involved, according to Mr. Schanzer he "is just as ambitious in the business world."
All this led Mr. Schanzer to ask, regarding the Abbas brothers: "Have they enriched themselves at the expense of regular Palestinians—and even U.S. taxpayers?" Mr. Schanzer paraphrased the allegations of a former PA adviser, Mohammed Rashid—who himself was convicted in absentia of corruption by a Palestinian court last June—that President Abbas has "socked away $100 million in ill-gotten gains." Mr. Schanzer also said that "several Palestinians told me that the Abbas family dynasty is common knowledge" in the territories.
As Judge Sullivan noted in his opinion dismissing the case, the Abbas brothers "have filed defamation lawsuits or threatened to sue for libel on three separate occasions against an Israeli television channel, Reuters and Al Jazeera." In his suit against Mr. Schanzer and Foreign Policy, Yasser Abbas accused the defendants of "posing libelous questions and printing innuendos." The questions Mr. Schanzer asked regarding the Abbas brothers' wealth, Yasser argued, didn't constitute opinions but false assertions of fact. (Tarek Abbas didn't sue in this case.)
In his complaint, Yasser Abbas disputed some of Mr. Schanzer's assertions about his businesses. But after the defendants' lawyers filed their anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss, Yasser Abbas responded by arguing that "the article's reference to these businesses is not the basis for Plaintiff's libel claim." The focus of the case was thus narrowed: Were Mr. Schanzer's pointed questions about the source of Yasser Abbas's wealth libelous, as the plaintiff argued?
Judge Sullivan's answer was no. He held that the case involves claims made about a public figure and implicates an important issue of public interest, namely, "the relationship between the United States and the Palestinian Authority." The case thus fit within D.C.'s definition of a "strategic lawsuit." As a result, the defendants were entitled to a speedy dismissal unless Yasser Abbas could produce evidence early on that showed his claims are viable.
Such evidence was wanting, the court said. The questions Mr. Schanzer raised about the Abbas family's wealth were just that—questions—"however embarrassing or unpleasant they might be" to the plaintiff. Even if they amounted to assertions, the judge went on, Mr. Schanzer's questions were opinions protected by the Constitution since they appeared online in Foreign Policy's "Arguments" section and referred to other outlets' reporting.
"This decision was a strong affirmation of the First Amendment right to raise questions about public figures,"
The battle against SLAPPs goes on. Judge Sullivan's decision in the Abbas case was the latest among several in which federal judges applied state anti-SLAPP statutes in federal court. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has yet to weigh in on the question. There is no federal anti-SLAPP law on the books, and just over half the states have adopted such laws. Other writers criticizing powerful figures remain vulnerable to malicious suits.
Exercising free speech in the U.S. hardly is as risky as doing so in the West Bank. But it isn't without peril. Just ask
Mr. Ahmari is an assistant books editor at the Journal.