What are “private” vs “public” interests under DC anti-SLAPP statute?

We should get more insight into the answer to that question after the DC Superior Court rules in the pending case of Campbell v. CGI Group, Inc. because, after attending last Thursday’s oral argument, that is the issue on which the anti-SLAPP motion filed by Compass Solutions will turn. 

A quick reminder on how we got here.  According to the Complaint filed by Campbell, Compass allegedly contacted her supervisor and stated that she was engaging in improper and unethical conduct, which led to her termination.  Campbell alleged that the true purpose of the communication was to remove her from her position (the Chief Operating Officer for the DC Department of Health Care Finance) because Compass viewed her as an obstacle to it securing lucrative contracts with the District of Columbia. 

Compass’s anti-SLAPP motion concedes that it spoke with the supervisor, but argues that it was because of its concern about Campbell’s possible improper and unethical behavior, which Compass argues is a “public interest” within meaning of the DC anti-SLAPP statute.  In response, Campbell argues that Compass’s only purpose in talking with her supervisor was to get its invoices paid, which, she argues, is a private, and not a public interest.

Compass’s reply brief argues, however, that the anti-SLAPP statute applies, irrespective of its motive, because the subject of the communication – alleged government corruption – is an issue of public interest:

Even if the communications solely pertained to private interests, the subject of the report is clearly an issue of public interest; the Anti-SLAPP Act applies to this lawsuit.  Communications about the existence of corruption and contract steering always have a strong element of public interest.

* * *

Assuming, arguendo, the Compass did have some private interest in reporting about Ms. Campbell’s activities, the reports still served the public interest by reporting of corruption and contract “steering.”  Accordingly, the communications are protected under the Anti-SLAPP Act.  Compass’s alleged communications advanced the interests of all District residents by exposing possible crimes and reporting possible corruption; they were not simply advertising or an attempt to secure payment as suggested by Plaintiff.

This disagreement, over what constitutes private interests, continued during last week’s hearing.  There, counsel for both sides acknowledged that, in the statute, “[t]he term ‘issue of public interest’ shall not be construed to include private interests, such as statements directed primarily toward protecting the speaker’s commercial interests rather than toward commenting on or sharing information about a matter of public significance.” 

Campbell’s counsel argued that, under that definition, Compass’s communications were purely private because, if its invoices had been paid on time, it never would have spoken with Campbell’s supervisor.  Compass’s counsel argued, on the other hand, that the fact the communications might have benefitted Compass was not relevant because the purpose was to report alleged government misconduct, which he argued was a quintessential public interest. 

The Court took the matter under advisement; I suspect we’ll get an opinion in the next month.

Leslie Machado

About: Leslie Machado

Mr. Machado counsels and advises a diverse range of clients on various areas of law. He is also an experienced litigator, having tried cases to verdict in state and federal courts. View all posts by Leslie Machado
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