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Ohio bill will further protect free speech

Lively public debate and dialogue about community issues are a big part of our democratic process. Residents must be able to discuss issues, and journalists must be able to report on them — each without fear of landing in court facing accusations of libel or defamation.

Yet, sadly, there are people who sue both journalists and other citizens for defamation and libel even when there is nothing false about statements that are clearly opinion. In these cases, the plaintiff often knows he or she will eventually lose, yet still files the civil suit as a simple tactic to silence or slow the discourse or as a ploy to deter others from speaking out on the issue.

Such suits are commonly known in my business as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation — or SLAPP.

In these cases, the defendant typically prevails, but only after months or years in court and outrageous legal expenses caused by fighting the suit.

Now, however, pending in the Ohio Legislature is Senate Bill 215, a bill that, if passed, would provide better protections against such meritless defamation or libel claims, whether filed against journalists or citizens.

Officially known as the “Ohio Citizen Participation Act,” the law would create a legal framework for judges to follow in cases of SLAPP lawsuits.

The Ohio News Media Association, or ONMA, a state trade association representing Ohio newspapers (including this one), has been fighting for years to get such legislation passed in Ohio. More than half the states already have such laws protecting people engaging in their First Amendment right of Freedom of Speech from becoming targets of meritless lawsuits.

The ONMA explains that Anti-SLAPP laws are designed to bring a swift end to such legal claims, particularly if they involve clear-cut cases against citizens or journalists that had been engaging in protected speech. Under such legislation, the litigation’s time window is narrowed significantly from years to months and also contains a “loser pays” provision, which means if the court decides the defamation or libel allegation is without merit, attorney fees for the defendant will be awarded.

SB 215 was introduced in October and now is under review in the state Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Matt Huffman, R- Lima, sponsored the bill, and co-sponsors include Sen. President Larry Obhof, R-Mansfield. No local legislators are co-sponsoring the bill; however, ONMA says the bill enjoys bipartisan support from a diverse coalition including the ACLU, Americans for Prosperity, the Ohio Association of Broadcasters, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, domestic violence advocacy groups and the motion picture industry.

In explaining the bill’s language, ONMA notes the bill would not change the legal definition of defamation or libel. If defaming or libelous statements are made or printed, the alleged victim would still maintain the same remedies available today.

However, the bill prevents people from using the legal system to harass, threaten or financially penalize someone for simply exercising their First Amendment rights.

In an explanation of SB 215, the ONMA recently said this: “We have had member newspapers targeted by such meritless claims and it has cost their libel insurers hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend a case they were always going to win — it was just a question of how long the plaintiff was going to drag out the case and try to outspend them.”

Other such frivolous cases could include suits against citizens or even government officials who spoke out at public meetings against a corporation; domestic violence victims who testifying in support of legislation regarding domestic violence laws have been sued for defamation by their abuser; and even the motion picture industry has been threatened with lawsuits in cases involving documentaries.

At the end of the day, Ohio needs strong anti-SLAPP laws like this that will go far to protect the dialogue and free speech of citizens like both you and me.

Linert is editor of the Tribune Chronicle and The Vindicator.