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Bill in Ohio Legislature would discourage lawsuits that suppress free speech


Published: Wed, November 22, 2017 @ 12:00 a.m.

There’s no such thing as a good SLAPP.

It is past time for Ohio to join a growing majority of states that have adopted legislation aimed at reducing nuisance lawsuits that are known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).

These suits are designed to do one thing: shut down debate on issues of public importance. They are most often filed by the rich and/or powerful to intimidate and silence their critics by forcing them to defend baseless and costly suits.

Ohio state Sen. Mark Huffman, R- Lima, has introduced Senate Bill 206, the Ohio Citizen Participation Act.

PROTECTION FROM FRIVOLOUS SUITS

In his presentation to the Senate Government Oversight and Reform Committee, Huffman predicted that the bill would provide needed protection for individuals exercising their constitutional right to free speech against frivolous lawsuits designed to stifle opposition.

Huffman described a SLAPP suit as one designed to suppress criticism, discourage opposition and limit individual expression against a given entity. They are not a new legal phenomenon.

Two University of Denver professors, George Pring and Penelope Canan, coined the term 30 years ago for a book they wrote: “ SLAPPS: Getting Sued for Speaking Out.”

Typically, the suits are brought by businesses, government bodies, or elected officials against those who oppose them on issues of public concern, such as real-estate developments that don’t comply with zoning, perceived hazardous developments of one kind or another, animal rights or consumer protection. Some involve criticism of public officials or public employees. .

The defendants are individuals or organizations that have demonstrated their opposition by circulating fliers or petitioning for a referendum, by demonstrating, by writing letters to the editor, by filing complaints with a government agency, by commenting at a public hearing or by filing a lawsuit.

All those actions are – or should be – protected by the First Amendment.

Huffman says the legislation he proposes would expedite the process of dismissal for such cases, allowing a judge to dismiss a meritless lawsuit based upon a special motion to strike. Both parties have full appeal rights from the ruling on the special motion.

OHIO AS NATIONAL LEADER

Huffman says the act also includes protections for online commenters facing litigation, an important change that would make Ohio a national trend-setter.

By allowing defendants an avenue toward expedited dismissal of a frivolous suit, SB 206 would remove the primary purpose of a SLAPP suit, which is to intimidate people exercising their First Amendment rights by subjecting them to long and expensive litigation.

The bill has the support of the Ohio News Media Association, Ohio Domestic Violence Network, Common Cause Ohio, Motion Picture Association of America, Ohio Association of Broadcasters, Yelp Inc. and the USA Today Ohio Network. In addition to Huffman, it has four co-sponsors, all Republicans.

“This is not a liberal or conservative issue. All citizens have a stake in the right to freely express themselves,” said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio News Media Association. “Sen. Huffman’s bill does not expand libel and defamation laws. You’re still accountable for what you say and publish. This law will dispose of cases that defendants would eventually win if only they had the time and money to stay the course.”

Hetzel also points out that the bill would make Ohio a national leader in protecting anonymous speech on the internet by requiring website operators and internet service providers to inform potential defendants of requests to “out them” by them by name or IP address. They must be given notice of such demands and have an opportunity to contest subpoenas and other identification requests.

The Ohio General Assembly should be eager to join the 28 other states that have already adopted anti-SLAPP legislation. Protecting the viability of the First Amendment should be a priority.


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