Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) are lawsuits brought against individuals and groups speaking out against the government and issues of public interest. They are used to intimidate and silence those who comment or report on the activities of the suits’ plaintiffs in an effort to drain defendants’ financial resources and squelch speech. The lawsuits, although almost always meritless, can take years and thousands of dollars to defend. SLAPPs effectively prevent individuals from voicing their opinions and are a direct contradiction to the rights of the First Amendment, specifically the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press.
While SLAPPs have been extremely controversial for several decades, only half of the states have enacted anti-SLAPP laws. Without these SLAPP laws, plaintiffs seeking to silence speech have the ability to “forum shop” and sue in a state where there is a weak SLAPP law, or no law at all.
As a result, members of Congress have introduced federal anti-SLAPP legislation numerous times over the years. Efforts are underway to develop anti-SLAPP legislation in the 117th Congress. News Media for Open Government supports the development and advancement of federal anti-SLAPP legislation to prevent SLAPPs being used as a silencing tool. Federal legislation should resemble protections that have been put in place at the state level, such as the opportunity for defendants to file a motion to dismiss lawsuits before engaging in costly discovery and the shifting of legal fees on plaintiffs in order to deter SLAPPs.
As technology makes it even easier for citizens to publicly critique organizations and individuals, it is more important than ever that federal anti-SLAPP legislation is implemented. Critical dialogue is a fundamental aspect of a democratic society that should be encouraged rather than punished.