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

community.

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

fat wallets.

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,

D-Houston.

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

legal fees.

These protections are basic tools to help protect citizens in their free

exercise of fundamental, constitutionally derived rights of speech and

petition.

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