Human Rights

It Might Get Harder For Someone to Silence You With a Lawsuit

A substantial bipartisan effort is underway to enact anti-SLAPP protections.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Currently 28 states have some kind of anti-SLAPP statutory protection. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, which refers to litigation intended to silence critics by sticking them with the need for an exorbitant legal defense. Think of the Church of Scientology’s attempts to intimidate whistleblowers with threats of legal action. It’s also used by corporations, like McDonald’s suing environmental activists for distributing pamphlets that were critical of the company’s policies.

Lawmakers have been pushing for federal SLAPP legislation for years, but it finally looks as if a substantial bipartisan effort is underway. The ideal model for federal rules is California, the state with the most expansive anti-SLAPP protections. A recent Los Angeles Times editorial explains the existing system:

When someone is hit with a lawsuit that feels like a SLAPP, he or she can quickly file a motion to strike. The court then puts the original lawsuit on hold while determining whether the person was, in fact, being sued for exercising free-speech rights, petitioning the government or speaking in a public forum on ‘an issue of public interest.’ If so, the court will toss out the lawsuit unless the plaintiff can show that the claims are legitimate and likely to succeed at trial. To guard against abusive anti-SLAPP motions, the side that loses such a case has to pay the other side's legal fees.

The federal proposal, H.R. 2304, is sponsored by Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican. Farenthold’s political affiliation may confuse those who only associate anti-SLAPP efforts with corporate critics, but there’s potentially a libertarian, even conservative, appeal to such legislation. When asked about the importance of the bill, Farenthold explained:

If someone posts something negative, whether it’s true or their opinion, both of which are protected speech under the First Amendment, costly lawsuits are being used to silence people who are posting negative reviews. We need to make it cheaper, easier and quicker to get rid of these lawsuits so that people are talking about matters of interest to the public and are expressing their opinion or are saying something that’s true, which is what the anti-SLAPP legislation does.

In fact, anti-SLAPP protections might prove beneficial for some conservative causes, as there seem to already be examples of them being used for ulterior motives. In 2010, Congress Elementary School District in Phoenix tried to use SLAPP to prevent four women from repeatedly filing public record requests. The four women were represented by the Goldwater Institute, a right-wing think tank committed to charter schools and vouchers.

It’s clear that anti-SLAPP protocol can be used in a variety of different cases, but the need for protections seems clear to most, as the online world now permeates our daily lives and citizens are readily given the opportunity to share their opinions on any given subject. Farenthold’s bill has at least 24 cosponsors from both parties.

Read the Los Angeles Times editorial calling for federal anti-SLAPP action.

Michael Arria is an associate editor at AlterNet and AlterNet's labor editorFollow @MichaelArria on Twitter.

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