State Sen. Larry Farnese views so-called “SLAPPs” as a proverbial slap in the face to
those who look to weigh in on important societal issues.
Hence why the Philadelphia Democrat plans to soon introduce legislation designed to tamp down on what has come to be viewed as frivolous litigation against a person or group for the positions they take in connection with matters of public interest.
Farnese, a Philadelphian first elected to the state Senate five years ago, announced last month that he intends to soon introduce a measure that would protect people and groups from torts dubbed Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
Despite the legal theories behind the such suits, which are typically referred to as SLAPPs, the real purpose of this type of litigation is to deter critics by burdening them with legal defense costs, the senator contends.
“The legal system should protect free speech and not act as a hammer to silence people who speak their mind on important issues and neighborhood development,” Farnese said in a statement. “The work that is done by our civic groups is essential to every neighborhood and the possibility that we might start losing these important forums is bad for everyone.”
Farnese stated that he decided to propose such legislation after what he called spiraling insurance costs that recently forced a Philadelphia neighborhood group called the Old City Civic Association to cease weighing in on zoning and liquor licensing matters.
The group subsequently disbanded after being in existence for four decades, according to the senator’s office.
Old City Civic was located within Farnese’s senatorial district.
Farnese stated that he hopes restrictions on SLAPPs would at least in part lead toward more affordable insurance rates.
The lawmaker has said he was especially troubled with the Old City Civic Association situation because the group apparently had a thorough process for vetting issues before group members weighed in on topics publicly.
In a memorandum he sent out to the general Senate membership on May 17, Farnese pointed out the claims typically found in SLAPP litigation, such as defamation, invasion of privacy, nuisance, malicious prosecution or abuse of process, conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and interference with contract or economic advantage.
Farnese says that while most SLAPPs are not legally successful, “they create a chilling effect, deterring open debate about public issues by the defendants of a SLAPP, as well as others who become fearful of becoming involved in issues of public concern.
“The cost of defending a SLAPP, with respect to attorney’s fees, time and resources, is many times too burdensome for an individual or organization to want to chance speaking out and facing a lawsuit in the future,” Farnese wrote in his memorandum. “My legislation would provide defenses to quickly dismiss SLAPP-type lawsuits, as well as possible recovery of attorney’s fees, for legitimate civic and community organizations that take positions or make statements in connection with an issue before a government body or official proceeding, or in a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest.”
Farnese said he believes that peoples’ free speech rights, “particularly when addressing issues before our bodies of government, is paramount.”
Farnese’s office has indicated that 27 other states across the nation, in addition to the U.S. Territory of Guam, have already passed anti-SLAPP legislation.
Pennsylvania passed a limited anti-SLAPP law in 2000, but it only applies to environmental law and regulatory processes.
Sally M. Keaveney, Farnese’s legislative director, told the Pennsylvania Record in an emailed message that the office is still working on the language of the bill, and expects a proposal to be formally introduced either later this month or in early July.