They're called SLAPP suits. The punchy acronym stands for strategic lawsuits
against public participation. They are legal pre-emptive strikes designed to
put terror in the hearts of those with nosy questions, suspicions of
wrongdoing or the urge to stir their fellow citizens to action. Their
targets range from journalists to whistle-blowers to ordinary citizens
engaged in the routine workings of our democracy - whether this is
researching news stories, speaking out against abuses in public agencies or
merely organizing petition drives.
"Short of a gun to the head, a greater threat to the First Amendment can
scarcely be imagined," New York Supreme Court Judge J. Nicholas Colabella
observed in describing SLAPP suits in 1992. Was Judge Colabella overstating
the dangers of SLAPPs? We don't believe so.
Over the years, SLAPP suits have been brought against individuals and groups
for circulating petitions, testifying at public hearings, lobbying, peaceful
demonstrations - even for writing letters to the editor, say law professors
George Pring and Penelope Canan , whose 1996 book, SLAPPs: Getting Sued for
Speaking Out, is considered a ground-breaking work on the subject.
Here are some examples of the harm done by SLAPP suits in Texas:
In Austin, a women who had filed a complaint against a doctor before the
Texas State Board of Medical Examiners and later complained to a television
station was sued for defamation by the doctor. Defendants were eventually
granted a summary judgment, but not before the doctor was able to run up
legal costs needlessly.
In Dallas, a developer of a low-income housing project and the principal of
the developer sued a local newspaper for news gathering activities prior to
publication of any article, claiming that the investigation was intended to
defame them and interfere with their business relationships.
In Houston, former HISD administrator Robert Kimball made complaints to the
school district against a private company that contracted with HISD to teach
troubled children and the company sued Kimball for defamation.
Lawsuits such as these are a clear threat to processes that perform an
overriding public good by protecting individuals from possible professional
malpractice, tracking the expenditure of tax dollars and watchdogging the
performance of those chosen to perform services for the benefit of the
SLAPP suits strike at the heart of our democracy - citizen participation.
Whether that comes in the form of writing a newspaper article, voicing a
criticism or signing a petition, this participation without fear of legal
retaliation is a cornerstone of our system. These voices must continue to be
heard without the threat of multimillion dollar damages acting as a giant,
heavy-handed mute button available only to individuals and corporations with
Two anti-SLAPP bills have been filed for consideration in the current
session of the Texas Legislature. They are HB 2973 and HB 2974 by state Rep.
Todd Hunter , R-Corpus Christi, and SB 1565 by state Sen. Rodney Ellis,
Together these bills form the Texas Citizen Participation Act, which is
modeled after similar acts passed in 27 states and the District of Columbia.
If approved, the Texas act would allow defendants to seek dismissal of SLAPP
suits earlier in the legal process, thus avoiding excessive litigation costs
and fees. It would also allow defendants who are sued as a result of
exercising their right of free speech or their right to petition the
government to file a motion to dismiss the suit.
At this point, the plaintiff would be required to provide clear evidence of
a genuine case for each essential point of his claim. If the motion to
dismiss is granted, the plaintiff may be required to pay the defendant's
These protections are basic tools to help protect citizens in their free
exercise of fundamental, constitutionally derived rights of speech and
Over time, exercise of these rights has been openly threatened and visibly
curtailed by SLAPP suits intended to intimidate and bully.
In a crowded legislative agenda in Austin, likely to get more crowded as
lawmakers' attention shifts to matters such as redistricting, these bills
must not be forgotten. Defending citizens against this kind of intimidation
deserves a priority.
SLAPP suits are the bully's chosen weapon against democracy. The bullies
must not be allowed to prevail any longer in Texas.
Copyright 2011 Houston Chronicle