Lawsuits to limit public participation can impact free speech, including #MeToo movement

By Lawrence M. Farnese Jr., a Democratic member of the Pennsylvania Senate, for the Inquirer:

As a lawmaker and lawyer who has been immersed for years in the policy and politics of fighting strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), I am pleased to have other public officials join our cause.  In fact, Philadelphia City Council’s Wednesday hearing on SLAPP suits may be useful for those not yet engaged in the fight.

But because there have been years of study, hearings, meetings and legislation, little can be gained by more talk.

We know the facts and understand what is necessary as a public policy.  We need action, now.

SLAPP suits can be devastating to Registered Community Organizations (RCOs) and their efforts to defend free speech and democracy.  Large business conglomerates, wealthy developers, and others who have big projects and small minds use our legal system — and the costs involved in legal actions — to drown free speech and community activism.

Local examples in the Philadelphia area illustrate the need for reform.

In 2013, the Old City Civic Association was forced to disband after finding insurance unavailable due to threatened legal action over zoning issues.

SLAPP suit threats also apply to individuals as well. One person was hit with a SLAPP suit for using a blog to question how puppy mill regulations were handled.  The case carried on for four years before it was dismissed.  Years later, and, despite the dismissal, the target of the SLAPP suit could not pursue frivolous-lawsuit damages because the SLAPP litigants appealed.

An even greater fear for the future is how SLAPP suits may be used to devastate the #MeToo movement. Those victimized by sexual harassment may face the prospect of SLAPP suits being deployed as a way for harassers to shield disclosure.

These odious acts — well-heeled developers using the legal system to stifle free speech — are ruinous.  I am fully aware — as are the RCOs who are the targets of the legal actions — of what deep-pocketed developers can do in using SLAPP suits to destroy community activism.  Developers, armed with fleets of lawyers, can hijack free speech and impede opposition to an unwelcome local development.

As the sponsor of legislation (Senate Bill 95) that would strike at the heart of this harsh legal strategy, I have faced unique policy, political and legal obstacles in trying to get my legislation approved.

Read more here.