The First Amendment guarantees Americans the right to freedom of speech. Yet, ever since the U.S. Constitution was ratified 227 years ago, forces have been seeking to silence and control public discourse.
In recent years, wealthy individuals have undermined free speech by filing punitive lawsuits against their critics. This type of lawsuit, known as a strategic lawsuit against public participation or SLAPP, is used to discourage people from exercising their right to free speech.
How SLAPPs Cool Speech
Put simply, if a person chooses to publicly criticize a powerful individual or business, then that person is vulnerable to be sued. Although these lawsuits tend to have little legal merit, and are rarely decided favorably for the person seeking to silence the critic, the threat of legal action alone is enough to deter plenty of would-be critics from speaking their minds. In effect, SLAPPs can successfully intimidate people into staying silent, while punishing those who dare speak out.
Recently, Ohio coal magnate Robert E. Murray filed a SLAPP against two protestors who publicly criticized him and his company, Murray Energy Corporation. Murray is seeking damages for claims of defamation and invasion of privacy. At stake is much more than financial damages—Murray’s lawsuit represents yet another attack against citizen’s constitutional rights to free speech.
Worried about being SLAPPed? Check out our online tool kit, with resources and information for activists.
Stopping SLAPPs Not Easy in Ohio
Murray’s most recent SLAPP lawsuit is not his first, and it’s not likely to be his last. He sued journalists at the Chagrin Valley Times in 2012, and in 2013, he sued The Huffington Post. The ACLU of Ohio took on that case and it was successfully dismissed. Murray has sued or threatened to sue a number of others on defamation-related charges over the years.
The message is clear from SLAPPs plaintiffs—speak out, and you will spend the next few years in court. Expensive, time-draining lawsuits are easy to manage for a huge corporation, but not so much for the average American.
Nationwide, courts are keenly aware of the prevalence of SLAPPs and their damaging effects on free speech. In fact, 28 states have passed anti-SLAPP laws that offer special protection for targets of these lawsuits. Ohio is one of the 22 states that lacks anti-SLAPP legislation. This means that in Ohio, victims of SLAPPs must fight their cases in court, incurring considerable costs and expenses.
To address the disparities in anti-SLAPP laws nationwide, a federal anti-SLAPP bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in May of 2015. The bill, called SPEAK FREE, may be Ohio’s best chance at stopping SLAPPs and ensuring that free speech indeed remains free.
As a defender of constitutional freedoms, the ACLU is committed to protecting free speech for all, whether that speech is well received or not. In Ohio and elsewhere, SLAPPs represent a serious threat to First Amendment rights. In the absence of anti-SLAPP legislation in Ohio, it’s crucially important that we recognize the rights of citizens to constitutionally protest and voice their opinions, without fear of consequence.
Kyra Schoonover was a summer intern with the ACLU of Ohio.