As part of a personal commitment to positively utilize my legal skills, I joined the Legal Network for Gender Equity, a group of attorneys who support individuals seeking to come forward about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault. Through this network, I regularly counsel women who want to share their stories but are concerned that by doing so, they may open themselves up to costly defamation suits from their aggressors. Their concerns are not so much rooted in any notion that their stories are or could actually be defamatory. Instead, these concerns often stem from a recognition that the legal system in many ways benefits those with greater resources—frequently the aggressors in these actions—and a sensible concern that defending oneself in a legal action could be burdensome on both financial and emotional levels even if the complaint were ultimately dismissed.
My clients regularly come to me hoping that I may be able to allay their fears about how defamation cases are treated by our legal system, or at least help them engage in a risk assessment before they step forward. Some of my most difficult conversations in counseling these individuals, however, involve explaining that there is often not an easy and quick exit from a defamation lawsuit. Their inclination that the legal system is not set up with First Amendment rights in mind is correct: rules governing legal processes are designed to give plaintiffs their day in court against potential accusers. Naturally, “day” is just a euphemism here; defamation cases frequently take months, if not years, to resolve.