Slapping back a SLAPP suit Defamation charge: D.C. jury correctly supported Anne Arundel group that battled developer.

June 17, 1998

JUSTICE was done last week when a Washington jury refused to award damages to a developer even though it ruled he had been subjected to "false and defamatory" allegations by a community group from southern Anne Arundel County.

The $50.2 million defamation suit sprang from a decade-long battle over the construction of Baldwin's Choice, a 152-unit subdivision on 477 acres on the Shady Side peninsula. Washington parking magnate Dominic Antonelli accused a group called South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development of defaming him and his company, Point Properties Inc.

The group wrote to government officials and newspapers in 1996, suggesting that Mr. Antonelli might have violated bankruptcy laws in acquiring the Shady Side parcel. Mr. Antonelli filed for bankruptcy in 1991.

Mr. Antonelli's lawyer said that his client merely wanted an apology, but stifling the group's fight against his subdivision may have been the actual motivation.

The jury recognized this as a "SLAPP" suit -- "strategic lawsuit against public participation." Statements by the group against Mr. Antonelli were false, but not libelous, the jury concluded.

Deep-pocketed developers across the county have filed similar suits to intimidate grass-roots organizations that form in opposition to their projects. Given the astronomical costs of defending a civil suit, the strategy can chill legitimate public debate. The southern Anne Arundel group was fortunate to have an attorney who took its case for free.

Community groups should have wide latitude to mount arguments against a project. These organizations, however, must recognize the need for truthful presentation of the facts; they hurt their cases by spreading falsehoods. They won't persuade public officials if they lose credibility.

Developers are protected by laws against defamation, slander and libel. Judges and juries must continue to prevent developers from silencing their critics by perverting the legal system.

Pub Date: 6/17/98

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