On January 4, 2021, the ACLU and the ACLU of Nevada filed an amicus brief in Williams v. Lazer, a case on petition for review in the Nevada Supreme Court. This case arises out of a defamation lawsuit filed by Mr. Lazer, a white man, against Ms. Williams, a Black woman. Mr. Lazer represented Ms. Williams in a real estate transaction and, according to Ms. Williams, made statements that were racist and sexist during the course of the sale. Ms. Williams filed a complaint with the Nevada Real Estate Division (NRED), alleging that Mr. Lazer acted unprofessionally and made racist and sexist comments about Ms. Williams. In response, Mr. Lazer sued Ms. Williams, claiming the statements she made in the NRED complaint were defamatory. Ms. Williams filed a motion to dismiss the claims under Nevada’s law prohibiting strategic lawsuits against public participation, known as an “anti-SLAPP” law. The district court denied the Ms. Williams’ motion and the Nevada Court of Appeals affirmed the denial.
Rather than acknowledging that Ms. Williams’ speech was a protected statement of opinion, the Court of Appeals determined that Ms. Williams’ characterization of Mr. Lazer’s comments as “racist” and “sexist” was a defamatory statement of fact. This characterization is not just incorrect but creates a pleading standard that could have a devastating effect on the free speech rights of Nevadans. Under this standard, any statement of opinion made that the speaker believes to be true could subject the speaker to legal liability.
The ACLU and the ACLU of Nevada argued that the Nevada Supreme Court should grant review and reverse the lower court’s ruling because speech about race and gender discrimination is political speech lying at the heart of the First Amendment’s protections. As courts throughout the country have recognized, the meaning of terms like “racist” and “sexist” continues to be vigorously disputed, and it is error to deem those characterizations factual in the defamation context. To hold otherwise would chill public debate on matters of overriding national concern and make it more difficult to expose and combat harmful prejudice.