From the Anti-SLAPP Legislation Facebook group:
H.R. 4364 is making progress, just got another co-sponsor, Rep. Mike Doyle!
Rep. Doyle (D-PA) joins the bill’s other three co-sponsors: Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-TX), Pete Stark (D-CA), and the bill’s author, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN). Details will follow as I find out more.
Later this month I will begin my Civic Engagement Tour–a guest lecture series in classrooms at small colleges and universities in the state of Florida, in which I plan to share my recent experiences in order to raise awareness about SLAPPs and encourage public support for H.R. 4364. Introduced by Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, H.R. 4364 is a non-controversial bill that protects Free Speech and will help to limit frivolous lawsuits against private citizens, lawsuits just like the one filed against me by prominent Florida businessman Christopher Comins.
Comins shot two domestic dogs as sixty witnesses (including the dogs’ owner) watched in horror. The high profile Orlando shooting gained worldwide attention in 2008, and eventually led to felony charges being filed against Comins. But that happened only after thousands of citizens got involved. Despite video evidence that shows Comins continuing to fire after the dogs’ owner arrives on the scene and begs him to “Stop,” authorities initially had refused to press charges against the well-connected shooter–whose local acquaintances and business associates included Mayor Rich Crotty and Walt Disney World, respectively, according to Henry Pierson Curtis’ article in the Orlando Sentinel. [Read Curtis’ article, “Caught on video, shootings of Orlando area dogs sparks global outcry”].
That’s when ordinary citizens spoke out, collectively, in hopes that the will of the people would carry more weight than one businessman’s wealth and influence, with the State Attorney Lawson Lamar who was up for reelection that fall. Some people took to the streets in protest while others petitioned our elected government officials. Not only was doing so our Constitutional right; it was the obvious right thing to do. What other choice do we have as citizens in a democracy, when one of the key parts in that democracy (in this case, our legal system) appears not to be functioning properly?
It took months, but our voices finally were heard. First the Sheriff’s office reopened its investigation and reluctantly recommended the shooter be charged with a misdemeanor; then the State Attorney upgraded the misdemeanor charges to felonies.
It was a victory for democracy, and for once I truly believed in our system’s so-called “checks and balances” put in place to prevent corruption. The First Amendment made sure no amount of wealth and power could silence the will of the people. That’s how it’s supposed to work in societies that value freedom of speech–even if “money talks,” the voice of the people can be heard over it.
But the triumph for democracy and free speech was short-lived. The dog shooter sued me for defamation in retaliation for my writing a blog entry about his crimes that had directed readers to the video and the original online petition drive.
Like most people who hear my story, my first response was, “How can he get away with suing someone for that?” I knew my rights, and had been careful not to venture outside the First Amendment’s protections.
That’s when I learned about SLAPP suits. A SLAPP is a strategic lawsuit against public participation, where the aim isn’t to win money but to silence legitimate criticism. In Christopher Comins’ home state of Florida, it’s perfectly legal for him to sue people for telling the truth about him. If he loses the case, the only negative consequence for him is not getting my money. But there’s no penalty for his bringing a baseless lawsuit against me. That means that I–or any other victim of a blatantly frivolous lawsuit–don’t get reimbursed for all the money needlessly wasted on legal fees.
When faced with a SLAPP lawsuit, there’s little incentive for most Floridians to fight for their First Amendment rights in court. Many feel they’ll lose more in the cost of fighting than they’d gain by actually winning. At the same time, there’s no disincentive to keep power elites like Comins from utilizing SLAPP suits to stifle civic engagement when they’ve done something wrong and don’t want the public talking about it.
But that will change if H.R. 4364 gets passed. The Citizen Participation Act enables defendants to file an anti-SLAPP motion, bypassing the financial drubbing and lengthy court battle (fifteen months and counting, for me) that accompanies getting sued.
As the Public Participation Project explains:
(H.R. 4364) allows someone who is brought to court on a meritless lawsuit arising from his exercise of First Amendment rights to have the lawsuit dismissed, and to recover attorney’s fees. [Read “The Need for H.R. 4364”]