California Bill Aims to Protect Sexual Assault Survivors From Getting Sued by Their Assailants

“This guy was absolutely out for blood, to destroy my reputation,” said Pamela Lopez, who was sued for defamation in 2017 by the politician who assaulted her.

In Depth
California Bill Aims to Protect Sexual Assault Survivors From Getting Sued by Their Assailants
Pamela Lopez speaks at the podium during the state Assembly’s first public hearings in the Capitol to examine complaints that the Legislature has fostered a culture of pervasive sexual harassment and abuse on November 28, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif. Photo:Getty Images

Pamela Lopez, a California-based lobbyist, joined numerous women working in state politics to speak out against the prevalence of sexual harassment in their line of work at the onset of the MeToo movement. In 2017, she testified before the legislature that she’d been assaulted by a state lawmaker the year before, and was pressed to reveal his name—a demand that would ultimately spark an avalanche of legal action against her. Lopez named her assailant, former Assemblymember Matt Dababneh, which was protected speech. But she was sued by Dababneh for then speaking about the alleged assault at a subsequent press conference. A court initially ruled that her remarks during the press release were not protected speech in 2018, but a federal appeals court ruled in her favor in 2021.

Over the last several years, Jessica Stender, policy director at the gender justice nonprofit Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), has worked extensively with survivors who’ve faced defamation suits from their assailants for speaking up about being assaulted in cases similar to Lopez’s. To Stender, Lopez is one of many women and survivors who were more or less hung out to dry in a post-MeToo world—one that “encouraged people to speak out” about sexual misconduct but didn’t offer them any legal protections (or at the very least, advice) for doing so.

Enter California’s AB 933, a newly passed bill that now sits at Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) desk and could make it substantially more difficult for abusers to sue and exploit the legal system to harass their victims. The threat of defamation suits is primarily associated with famous, public-facing women like Amber Heard, Evan Rachel Wood, Kesha, and others who have accused similarly famous, public-facing men of abuse. But Stender emphasized to Jezebel that ordinary, everyday people are, if anything, more vulnerable to expensive legal actions from their assailants for speaking up or even just trying to get help.

Because even if survivors win, Stender emphasized they can still be bankrupted or lose a significant amount of money trying to protect themselves; meanwhile, their assailant is more likely to have the resources for a legal showdown.

Stender’s organization, ERA, co-sponsored AB 933, which amends California’s civil code to treat “communications made without malice regarding sexual assault, harassment, or discrimination” as privileged speech. Of course, this won’t sweepingly stop these lawsuits from happening, particularly if a judge determines someone’s public allegations of abuse are made with malice. But if the victim wins the defamation suit against them, under AB 933, the person suing them will be liable to pay their legal fees.

“He could have just not assaulted anyone. But I’m the one who was punished, I’m the one who was wrong, for trying to get justice.”

“Every Christmas, every holiday, every birthday, almost four years, I had the weight of this terrible lawsuit hanging over my head,” Lopez told Jezebel. “This guy [Dababneh] was absolutely out for blood, to destroy my reputation, spreading rumors about me, slut-shaming me.” Lopez was lucky, she says, because her attorneys connected her to nonprofits including the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund to cover her extensive legal fees, where other survivors in her shoes have been “bankrupted.” Nonetheless, “just the process of getting sued is punishment enough,” she explained—it’s years of “agony and harassment,” all on top of the trauma of surviving assault.

Legislation like this, Stender says, has never been more necessary. “We’ve just been seeing a huge increase in these types of legal attacks, of predators trying to weaponize the law and the courts against survivors when they speak out,” she said. This threat has always existed but the rise in public allegations of sexual misconduct in recent years has certainly led to more suits.

At an April press conference marking AB 933’s passage from the Assembly, Victoria Burke, a professor at Southwestern Law School, recounted that after she was drugged and assaulted one night, a friend who was a defamation lawyer warned her not to speak publicly about the assault in a manner that might identify her assailant. “I’m a law professor, I also know the law, I’m speaking the truth and also speaking my opinion as to how things went down that night,” Burke said of her initial struggle to accept this advice. “But if you look at MeToo and the aftermath, many people who spoke out have now been sued.” This prompted Burke to connect with Assemblymembers Chris Ward (D) and Cecilia Aguilar-Curry (D) to work on AB 933. Elsewhere, Illinois is considering a similar bill, HB2836; Burke is determined to shepherd this legislation through “all 48 other states,” she said.

At ERA, Stender has worked with a group of law students who discovered they were all assaulted by the same man; upon reporting him to the Title IX office, they received cease-and-desist letters from him, then faced defamation suits. Litigation is ongoing. Earlier this year, Stender heard from another student who made and then withdrew a report about an assault from her Title IX office “because she was so scared of what would happen, she didn’t have the money to find a lawyer.” The student went on to learn of other women who had been victimized by the same man.

Defamation suits on college campuses carry disparate harm for student survivors. In 2021, Know Your IX published a study based on over 100 interviews with campus sexual assault survivors who had been attacked between 2002 and 2020 and found almost a quarter of them were threatened with a defamation suit from their attacker. Nearly one in five said they were warned by their school of the possibility of defamation suits, and 10% faced “retaliatory complaints” filed by their assailants. Notably, a 2015 study interviewing 74 student survivors found 34% were forced to drop out of school.

Last year, a Know Your IX organizer and co-author of the 2021 study told Jezebel about a student whose assailant was expelled from her university—only for him to file a defamation lawsuit that allowed him to “access her medical records, school records, even her sexual history,” forcing her to transfer schools, delay her graduation, and spend over $100,000.

Over the course of the legal war Dababneh waged on Lopez, she told Jezebel she learned several other women accused him of sexual assault. Still, he saw himself as “the real victim” at her hands, especially because her testimony moved others to speak up too. “He could have just not assaulted anyone,” Lopez said. “But I’m the one who was punished, I’m the one who was wrong, for trying to get justice.”

Stender’s hope is that AB 933 will shield survivors from harrowing experiences like Lopez’s: “Even if, ultimately, the survivor would win in this type of retaliatory defamation suit” like Lopez, Stender says, this best-case-scenario arises “only after years of really time-consuming, expensive, and deeply retraumatizing litigation that survivors should never have been put through in the first place.” Newsom’s signature could go a long way toward preventing this.

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