Bill would help activists fight nuisance suits

January 29, 1992|By David Conn | David Conn,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- When a developer proposed building a landfill near homes in Havre de Grace, Sylvia Hutsell and several neighbors decided to fight back by launching a campaign with the Town Council.

The day before the first public hearing, however, she and three of her neighbors were sued by the developer for $2.9 million.

"I cannot begin to express the turmoil and anguish this has brought to my family," Ms. Hutsell told members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee yesterday.

"They're not really out to get you," she said. "They just want to shut you up."

What Ms. Hutsell and her neighbors received are called "SLAPP" -- short for "strategic lawsuits against public participation."

The lawsuits, typically filed by a corporation against a community or environmental group, are aimed at citizens who are actively opposing a development or project.

SLAPPs discourage people from getting involved in the political process, critics charge, and have worked phenomenally well across the country.

Three states -- California, New Jersey and New York -- have enacted anti-SLAPP legislation similar to the bill considered by the Senatecommittee yesterday.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Leo E. Green, D-Prince George's, would protect defendants sued for exercising their First Amendment rights in front of a government body or the public at large.

It would allow a state government body to intervene on the defendant's behalf.

The bill also would allow defendants to file countersuits immediately and allow for punitive damages if the original suit's only purpose was to harass or intimidate the defendants, Mr. Green said. Under current law, defendants must wait for the original suit to be resolved before filing a countersuit.

"These suits seek to place a financial burden on the defendants and make them think twice about getting involved again in the political process," Mr. Green said.

That's exactly what happened in Bowie, when Ruth Anne Snyder led the opposition to a change in zoning law last year. A College Park developer sued Ms. Snyder for $6 million for opposing the change.

Attendance at Bowie's zoning hearings dropped to about 50 from more than 200 before the SLAPP was filed, Ms. Snyder said. She noted that her legal bills have climbed to more than $7,000.

A study by the University of Denver showed that more than 90 percent of the SLAPPs filed in the nation never make it to trial and that, because of their chilling effect on personal expression, they usually don't need to.

"There have been people who have had their homes under surveillance" after a SLAPP was filed, said Kenneth Rucker, a resident of Point of Rocks in Frederick County and a defendant in a suit over his fight against a proposed waste transfer facility.

"People have been followed," Mr. Rucker said, choking back tears. "And I don't want to live in a community like that."

No one showed up to testify against the bill.

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