On April 20, state lawmakers overwhelmingly passed legislation protecting sexual assault survivors from retaliation lawsuits. Supporters say it’s a crucial step in preventing individuals accused of sexual misconduct from silencing victims.
The bill, which received bipartisan support, protects survivors from being targeted in defamation lawsuits, providing the allegations were not reckless or knowingly false. The legislation also allows victims to recover damages and attorney’s fees when targeted by a defamation claim.
The bill rose from “pervasive misconduct” in state politics
In 2017, when the #MeToo movement was born, 150 women signed a letter charging that widespread sexism and sexual misconduct permeated California politics. They described a culture where male politicians groped women, made rude and sexist comments about their bodies, and denigrated their knowledge. As more women felt empowered to share their stories that year, a wave of resignations by male lawmakers occurred in California and elsewhere.
One of those incidents involved lobbyist Pamela Lopez, who described being at a Las Vegas event in 2016 when former Assembly member Matt Dababneh forced her into a bathroom and proceeded to masturbate in front of her. Dababneh denied Ms. Lopez’ allegations, but resigned from the legislature in 2018. He later sued Ms. Lopez for defamation despite a legislative investigation that found her claims to be credible. Ms. Lopez was forced to incur legal fees and costs to defend against the claims. Ms. Lopez says these types of lawsuits against victims encourage a culture where sexual harassment and assault go unchecked.
The bill addresses legal vulnerabilities for survivors
Some legal protections already exist in California for individuals who accuse others of sexual misconduct. But loopholes remain where retaliation lawsuits are permitted. In Ms. Lopez’s case, Dababneh accused her of defamation after she commented to the news media. The judge ultimately upheld her free speech rights, but not until after enduring years of litigation. Many survivors cannot afford lengthy court battles. The bill now goes to the California Senate, where we hope it will pass.