When citizens are 'SLAPPed' Frivolous lawsuits: Bill to insulate chosen groups from litigation sets a bad precedent.

March 10, 1998

IT IS NOT surprising in our lawsuit-happy society that some developers abuse the privilege of litigation, using it to intimidate and silence community groups that oppose their projects. Such lawsuits have become known as "SLAPP" suits, or "strategic lawsuits against public participation." Legislation that would offer qualified immunity to defendants in SLAPPs has passed in a number of states and is again before Maryland's General Assembly.

But legislatively protecting defendants is not the way to deal with frivolous lawsuits. Shielding chosen groups is a bad idea; no group has a monopoly on being right.

The courts already are free to throw out groundless suits brought by developers for no visible purpose other than to chill legitimate expressions of opinion. Disgracefully transparent cases -- one Texas woman was sued for $5 million for calling a toxic-waste site a "dump," while her husband was sued for $5 million for failing to control his wife -- have no business taking up time on the court docket.

The problem is that the courts do not always act expeditiously. Winning is not the point in SLAPPs. Just filing such a lawsuit is purpose enough: It can frighten people into silence and often drags into expensive legal battles that few community activists can afford.

The bill before the General Assembly includes sensible provisions that would make these effects harder to achieve. It would allow defendants to file an immediate counterclaim, require expedited hearings on a motion to dismiss, and stay court proceedings until the dispute with the developer is resolved.

But the key provision -- which would protect defendants from liability as long as their comments were made in good faith -- essentially empowers community groups to say whatever they want. Sometimes, in their fervor to protect their neighborhoods, people venture beyond fact-based opinion into emotionalism and defamation. The law must not make that permissible, no matter what the motive for a suit.

Legal action as a coercive tool is commonplace. Citizen activists often use lawsuits to stymie, delay or alter unwanted projects. Responsibility lies with the courts to determine when a suit is groundless, and to dismiss it before the defendants suffer unduly. It is not for us to start legislating categories of good guys and villains.

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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