A lawmaker from southeastern Pennsylvania announced Tuesday that a
hearing to address his proposed anti-SLAPP legislation would take place this spring.
State Sen. Larry Farnese, a Democrat from Philadelphia, stated that the Senate Judiciary Committee would hold a public hearing on April 24 at the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Market Street headquarters in downtown Philadelphia to address his proposed measure to cut down on SLAPPs, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
These types of civil actions are typically filed against neighborhood groups, civic organizations or individuals to deter them from weighing in on an issue of public importance.
The lawsuits saddle defendants with legal costs in what opponents such as Farnese contend are actually designed to shut people out of the public comment process.
Farnese, who represents the so-called “River Ward” neighborhoods on the eastern part of Philadelphia that abut the Delaware River, began working on his proposed legislation in 2013 when the Old City Civic Association disbanded after 40 years of service because the increased threat of SLAPP litigation made it unfeasible to obtain insurance coverage.
“We need to make sure that people can have a strong voice on what takes place in their neighborhoods without being silenced by the fear of a lawsuit,” Farnese said in a statement Tuesday.
Farnese thanked fellow Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Montgomery County Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, for holding a hearing on the measure, officially known as Senate Bill 1095.
“I want to thank Sen. Greenleaf for giving the public an opportunity to hear about the very serious effects of SLAPPs and what we can do to reverse the chilling effect these type of lawsuits have on our communities,” Farnese said in his statement.
According to the senator’s office, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed limited anti-SLAPP legislation in 2000, but it only applies to environmental law and regulatory processes.
Twenty-seven other states reportedly have anti-SLAPP laws on the books.
Farnese, who introduced his bill back in September, said at the time that community groups and associations across the commonwealth “deserve to be protected from the unhappy few who use SLAPP suits as a form of punishment.”
“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 previously said. “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.”
While most SLAPPs end up being unsuccessful in civil court – they often include claims of defamation, invasion of privacy, nuisance, malicious prosecution, conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and interference with contract or economic advantage – they create “a chilling effect, deterring open debate about public policy issues by defendants of a SLAPP, as well as others who become fearful of becoming involved in issues of public concern, Farnese said.
Under Farnese’s proposal, civic organizations or individuals who are wrongfully hit with a SLAPP suit could more easily have their cases dismissed or recover attorney fees.