A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Bipartisan move targets SLAPP suits

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Aug. 1, 2 or 3

The First Amendment guarantees more than the freedoms of speech and the press, which most Americans can name. When I used to do First-Amendment workshops for Junior High classes, I’d offer a mnemonic gimmick (a memory device) to help kids remember all the components of the First Amendment:


It stood for Grievance, Religion, Assembly, Speech and Press (and I often had to explain what was meant by a “redress of grievance” – which is central to being an American: seeking solutions to problems).

Now another abbreviation imperils the reason behind the First Amendment:


It stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

SLAPP suits for years have been used not by government – against which the First Amendment protects citizens – but business interests, and as many know, citizens don’t have First Amendment protections against private enterprise. (Call your boss a corrupt nincompoop, and you’ll realize freedom of speech ends at the employees’ entrance.)

SLAPP suits have dragged into court people who disputed medical claims; community supporters of a longshoremen’s labor dispute; a food co-op calling for a boycott of Israel for occupying Palestinian lands; members of a literary group that help a reading to back workers organizing at Guess, Inc.; folks alleging tampering of evidence concerning climate change; labor unions; and opponents of proposed mega-livestock farms.

The legal weapon is used to try to silence critics and discourage future opponents, hoping to intimidate or swamp aggrieved Americans with complex and sometimes costly legal maneuvers, sometimes for years. On their face, SLAPP suits violate every tenet of the First Amendment except Religion (reducing that memory gimmick to “GASP,” maybe). However, again, it’s not government but business that uses the tactic.

Now some are calling for a federal law to counter them.

Twenty-eight states, including Illinois, have some statutory protections against SLAPP suits, allowing meritless lawsuits to be quickly tossed. But 22 don’t, so a federal law makes sense, and U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican, last year introduced the SPEAK FREE Act (HR 2304), and this summer the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice held hearings on the bill.

Its 32 co-sponsors include 20 Democrats and 12 Republicans, which shows how the threat of SLAPP suits makes for odd allies, from the Planning and Conservation League to the American Civil Liberties Union, from newspaper publishers to unions.

Referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary and its Subcommittee, the measure would empower people against whom such lawsuits are filed to move to dismiss SLAPP claims arising from defendants’ oral or written statements or other expressions, or conduct in furtherance of such expressions, in connection with an official proceeding or about a matter of public concern such as subjects tied to health or safety, environmental, economic, or community well-being, government, public officials or public figures, or products or services in the marketplace.

If passed, the law also would require the court to award litigation costs, expert-witness fees, and reasonable attorney's fees to defendants who prevailed.

“Anti-SLAPP statutes are an effective way to terminate meritless lawsuits, thus reducing burdens on the courts, and at the same time promoting the exercise of speech rights,” testified Bruce Brown, director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “While journalists and news organizations certainly benefit from these laws, anyone who speaks out on controversial matters enjoys the benefit of anti-SLAPP protections.”

Besides stifling comments on issues of public importance, SLAPP suits put significant power into the hands of corporations with the legal resources to bully regular people who disagree with a product, project, etc. After all, “Congress shall pass no law abridging freedom of speech,’ etc. But Big Business will.

We must GRASP that.

[PICTURED: Illustration from]

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