A state senator from eastern Pennsylvania has introduced legislation to
protect neighborhood organizations and community groups against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, better known in legal circles as “SLAPPs.”
Sen. Larry Farnese, a Democrat who represents parts of Philadelphia, announced the introduction of his measure on Sept. 12.
The proposal is designed to clamp down on what many view as frivolous litigation against a person or group for the positions they take in connection with matters of public interest.
Farnese and others contend that the true motivation behind SLAPPs is to deter critics by burdening them with tort costs.
“Whether in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Erie or Gettysburg, neighborhood and community associations do good work and deserve to be protected from the unhappy few who use SLAPP suits as a form of punishment,” Farnese said in a statement last week.
The lawmaker has said the impetus behind his proposed legislation were the SLAPP cases filed against the Old City Civic Association that were, the senator contends, designed to stop the group from weighing in on zoning and liquor licensing issues relating to proposals that were coming before the board.
In existence for 40 years, Old City Civic, which is located within Farnese’s senatorial district, was soon forced to disband due to escalating insurance costs, according to the senator’s office.
“Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, and when hard working associations have to close their doors after decades of service because they can’t pay their insurance premiums, something is wrong,” Farnese said in his statement.
When he announced earlier this summer that he was soon planning to introduce such legislation, Farnese had said that despite the legal theories behind SLAPPs, the true purpose of this type of litigation is to make it too costly for community organizations to fight certain proposals for public construction projects and the like.
“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 at the time. “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.”
The legislator has said that he hopes restrictions on SLAPPs would at least lead toward more affordable insurance rates for community groups like Old City Civic.
In his May sponsorship memorandum, Farnese told his colleagues in the General Assembly that the types of claims often found in SLAPPs include defamation, invasion of privacy, nuisance, malicious prosecution, conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and interference with contract or economic advantage.
While most SLAPPs don’t end up being successful in court, the senator stated, “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 had written in his memo. “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.”
According to Farnese’s office, 27 states have thus far adopted anti-SLAPP legislation.
Pennsylvania passed a limited SLAPP measure in 2000, but the law only applies to environmental law and regulatory processes.
On the Philly Law Blog, Philadelphia attorney Jordan Rushie urged Pennsylvania residents to support Farnese’s proposed legislation.
“Under current Pennsylvania law, the victim of a SLAPP suit has little recourse against a vexatious plaintiff,” the lawyer wrote. “Anti-SLAPP laws will punish those who choose to file frivolous lawsuits to curb free speech and public participation.”
Philadelphia resident Christopher Sawyer has placed a petition on Change.org seeking support for anti-SLAPP legislation.
The man says he is currently embroiled in such litigation.
SLAPPs, he wrote in an introduction to the petition, are a “run-around of the First Amendment by abusing the procedures of the court system to silence critics.
“By entangling your opponent in expensive litigation you can effectively silence your opponent even if you know you don’t have any shot at winning the lawsuit,” Sawyer wrote. “The point of a SLAPP suit is not to win, it’s to silence and intimidate.”
According to court records, Sawyer, along with his blog, Philadelinquency.com, the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association and others are defendants in a lawsuit by business operator Marc Stein, who runs Club Aura in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood.
Records show that the plaintiffs recently filed a motion to dismiss the action for failure to state a claim.
“Marc Stein’s lawsuit is nothing more than a frivolous and capricious SLAPP action that he filed because his feelings got hurt that people were talking about the havoc his club caused when it was operating outside the bounds of the law,” Sawyer wrote on a Sept. 9 blog posting.
The plaintiffs in the case are being represented by Rushie, the Philadelphia attorney who runs Philly Law Blog.