SLAPP happy: Do multimillion-dollar lawsuits aim to silence public dissent?

John Drabik opened his mouth about a developer's plans in Draper and got slapped.

Slapped, as with a lawsuit. And SLAPP-ed with what legal experts are calling a chilling threat to American democracy -- lawsuits aimed at people exercising their right to petition local government."If the goal was to limit my involvement in politics in Draper, this suit has already succeeded," Drabik said before turning over all other questions about the suit to his attorney.

"These are so heinous. They are intended to chill, and they do," said Penelope Canan, associate professor of sociology at the University of Denver. She coined the SLAPP acronym, which stands for "strategic lawsuits against public participation," as a way to describe a strategy often used by developers to silence their opposition.

It's a real threat to democracy, Canan said.

Nonsense, say developers and their attorneys. Their clients have every legal right to haul into court loudmouths and busybodies who raise false claims, cost developers time and money and ruin reputations.

Free speech has limitations, said Michael Hutchings, a former judge and business partner with Anderson Development, a company suing several South Jordan residents. The residents, the suit claims, tried to interfere with the company's real-estate deal. There's nothing in the First Amendment that allows them to do that, Hutchings said.

A SLAPP is generally a civil complaint, filed against individuals or organizations, arising from their communications to government on an issue of public concern.

Canan and University of Denver law professor George Pring have examined 100 SLAPPs and say they are evidence of a legal trend that has been growing since the 1980s. Their research resulted in a 1996 book "SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out." It highlighted cases where people were being sued for circulating petitions, testifying at public hearings, writing letters to the editor and even signing an attendance sheet at meetings.

Consider these local lawsuits:

Drabik, a member of the Corner Canyon Neighborhood Association in Draper, protested a proposed residential development. The developer retaliated with a $45,000 lawsuit, plus punitive damages for defamation and interference with contracts or business.

Bonnie Callis, chairwoman of Concerned Families of Provo, testified and circulated a petition against a proposed housing plan on the benches above Seven Peaks water resort. The developer sued the city and 100 John and Jane Does for $12 million, claiming economic losses.

Janalee Tobias, Judy Feld and Brent Foutz, founders of the grass-roots group Save Open Space, petitioned against a developer's plans to put a business park along the banks of the Jordan River in South Jordan. The developer filed a $1.2 million lawsuit for business interference.

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