With all the recent brouhaha about the second amendment, firearm regulation and out of control gun violence, one would think that’s the only amendment under attack.
There exists a different form of violence assaulting our first amendment rights — cowardly legal attacks meant to silence free speech and intimidate their victims. They’re called SLAPP suits: Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Typically they are made with spurious claims of slander or libel, but virtually any law can be bent to fit the means of legal bullies.
Designed to silence and financially destroy their targets, they are the legal tool of choice of corporate bullies that wish to quash critics, opposition, competition and unfavorable opinions. Although illegal in 28 states, SLAPP suits continue to thrive in our litigious nation. The suits are hollow and the plaintiff rarely intends to win — just to silence free speech. Both common and constitutional law have evolved to set a very high substantive burden to claims that restrict free speech, particularly that which involves the public realm. But that doesn’t stop the legal bullying.
TransCanada, the multinational corporation building a tar sands pipeline in Texas SLAPPed activists who protested the project. The corporation demanded $5 million in damages. Although the activists were well represented by the Civil Liberties Defense Center, the defendants opted to reach a settlement in which they agreed to cease their protest just to put an end to the legal nightmare. Tamie Carson, A Texas grandmother said “I had no choice but to settle or lose my home and everything I’ve worked for my entire life.”
“[They]…function by forcing the target into the judicial arena where the SLAPP filer foists upon the target the expenses of a defense…The purpose of such gamesmanship ranges from simple retribution for past activism to discouraging future activism…Those who lack the financial resources and emotional stamina to play out the “game” face the difficult choice of defaulting despite meritorious defenses or being brought to their knees to settle…Persons who have been outspoken on issues of public importance targeted in such suits or who have witnessed such suits will often choose in the future to stay silent. Short of a gun to the head, a greater threat to First Amendment expression can scarcely be imagined.”
Sadly, I can relate. Several years ago my family, and several of my friends’ families, were the target of a SLAPP suit from Meijer Corporation over a development they planned in our community. After several agonizing years of litigation, we jointly agreed to file what’s called a SLAPP-back suit. In the face of legal discovery, it was only a matter of months before the corporate bully folded like a deck chair. The problem is, the fear never goes away. As a political activist and campaign manager I have been threatened twice more with SLAPP suits — the worst part is, the threats came from individuals that knew about the ordeal my family had been through. That’s extreme cruelty.
SLAPPs are not uncommon. Just this week, one was filed against a woman in Atlantic City, another against a group in Washington state, a SanClemente developer SLAPPed a local political action committee. The family of Ray Charles fought back against a SLAPP filed to prevent them from exercising their right to regain copyright to their father’s music.
Some consider SLAPP suits a fascist tool designed to enable corporate interests to trample individual first amendment rights. It’s about more than our rights — it’s about the lives of very real people. I witnessed the stress — the emotional and physical toll the SLAPP suit inflicted on my family and friends. Just thinking about it makes me sick all over again…but I will never forget.
(Check-out the new page here on Democracy Tree dedicated to exposing legal bullies)
Amy Kerr Hardin This article also appears in Voters Legislative Transparency Project