California lawmakers quietly passed a new bill last week that could be a significant victory for survivors of sexual misconduct in the state. 

AB 933 — now awaiting a signature from Gavin Newsom to be either vetoed or officially signed into law — is an amendment to California’s civil code that seeks to discourage those accused of sexual misconduct from filing frivolous retaliatory libel and defamation lawsuits against their accusers. 

The bill adds language specifying that “communications made without malice regarding sexual assault, harassment, or discrimination” are privileged, and that if a defendant wins a defamation suit in these cases, the accuser who filed the suit is on the hook for the legal fees. Specifically, the bill states that the defendant would be “entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, plus treble damages for any harm caused to them by the defamation action against them, in addition to punitive damages available.”

The bill was spawned, in part, after a college professor had gone to the state legislature pushing for reform. While the bill does not prevent anyone from filing a defamation suit, advocates hope it will disincentivize the most egregious cases that would more likely end with the unsuccessful plaintiff paying untold costs in legal fees. 

Since the #MeToo movement erupted in 2017 and survivors have come forward to the media, on social media or through the legal system, defamation and libel lawsuits have been a common strategy among those accused of misconduct. While those suits can be an important tool if someone has truly been slandered over malicious and false claims, they’ve also been frequently exploited by those accused of sexual misconduct to attempt to discredit accusers, even if their defamation claims have little merit. 

“Across the board, we’re seeing this really troubling trend of the person who harmed the survivor filing completely baseless and retaliatory defamation claims with the clear intent to silence them,” Jessica Stender, policy director at Equal Rights Advocates, a non-profit group that co-sponsored the bill, tells Rolling Stone. 

Proving libel or defamation is difficult in the United States, particularly when the claims are pointed toward public figures. In those cases, a challenging legal standard called “actual malice” must be met, where plaintiffs have to prove not only that a defendant said false statements as if they were fact, but that the defendant knew those claims were false. Many of the #MeToo allegations and subsequent defamation suits that surface within the music and broader entertainment industries involve public figures like major recording artists or prominent studio executives. 

In music, recent defamation cases include Marilyn Manson, who sued Evan Rachel Wood last year after Wood accused Manson of sexual abuse; a judge gutted several of Manson’s defamation claims last May. Producer Dr. Luke infamously sued Kesha for defamation (in New York) nearly a decade ago before he and Kesha settled the suit out of court in June. 

Stender says regardless of how valid the defamation claim is, the suits can have a “chilling effect” among sexual assault survivors, especially in cases where the person they accuse has more money, power and resources to pursue litigation. 

“In a situation of sexual harassment or sexual assault, you’re often already dealing with a power imbalance between the harmer and the survivor,” Stender says. “The survivor often doesn’t have the resources to find a lawyer or engage in expensive litigation. Although the survivor might ultimately prevail, it often takes years of extended and possibly re-traumatizing legal proceedings to actually win.”


Given how much of the music, film, television and fashion industries work out of Los Angeles, the new California legislation could have a wide impact on survivors of workplace misconduct in those industries. It’s difficult to imagine a larger payment incurred upon a dismissal would stop famous and powerful people with significant wealth and resources from filing if it’s the only option left to save their image. Still, while those cases are very prominent and draw the most public attention, they’re still a small minority compared to more typical claims.  

“We are hopeful that the strengthening of our defamation law will help to deter predators from even bringing these weaponized defamation claims in the first place,” Stender says, adding that she hopes to see similar legislation arise in other states across the country. “The bill makes it crystal clear that when a survivor is speaking about their experience of harassment or assault, that is protected speech.”