COLUMBUS, OHIO—The ACLU of Ohio has filed an amicus brief in support of activists James and Lisa Ciocia and their free speech rights in the Eighth District Court of Appeals in Cuyahoga County. The two have been sued by coal magnate Robert E. Murray of Murray Energy Corporation (MEC), a mining corporation in St. Clairsville, who once again is using a common legal practice known as a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) in an effort to silence critics.
Murray is attempting to seek damages for claims of defamation and invasion of privacy against the defendants. A trial court ruling on a summary judgement found in favor of the Ciocias, but Murray appealed to the Eighth District court. Such SLAPP lawsuits are often used to suppress criticism, resulting in a chilling effect on free speech, according to Jonathan Peters, a cooperating attorney with the ACLU.
“Expressive activities are essential to democracy, and for too long SLAPP suits have undermined Ohioans' rights to speak and to protest peaceably,” Peters said. “No one should be afraid to exercise his or her First Amendment rights. The filing of this brief makes clear that constitutionally protected speech should not be stifled by litigation—and sends a message to those who initiate such a lawsuit.”
The lawsuit stems from a December 2012 group protest that the Ciocias were involved in outside offices owned by Murray in a Cleveland suburb. The couple held signs and made statements to media that were critical of Murray and MEC for a variety of reasons.
This is not the first time that the ACLU of Ohio has gotten involved in legal matters concerning Murray. The ACLU of Ohio was co-counsel to Huffington Post contributor Mike Stark, who was named as a defendant in a SLAPP lawsuit filed by MEC for writing an article about Murray and MEC. The ACLU defended Stark, and the case was dismissed by a federal court in May 2014.