Anti-SLAPP bill dies in Oregon Senate

Friday, July 9, 1999

A measure offering Oregon citizens protection from meritless lawsuits filed to silence critical speech failed to clear the state Senate earlier this week.

In May, the Oregon House easily passed the bill aimed at protecting citizens from SLAPP suits — strategic lawsuits against public participation.

The measure stated that a person “is not civilly liable for their speech, influencing action, or otherwise participating in the processes of government, regardless of their intent or purpose.”

The House bill contained a provision allowing courts to quickly dismiss groundless lawsuits. “The court shall expedite any motion for summary judgement filed by a defendant that asserts the immunity provided by this section,” the bill read.

The House version provided SLAPP-suit defendants the right to recover attorneys' fees and other legal costs associated with defending themselves from the suits. The measure also allowed SLAPP victims to recover punitive damages from the plaintiff.

However, the Senate Judiciary Committee adopted a series of amendments that weakened the House version. For example, the Senate version provided that a citizen would not be immune from a SLAPP suit if “the person making the statement knew or should have known that the statement was false at the time the statement was made.”

The Senate version provided that a court “may” award “reasonable attorneys' fees” to a SLAPP victim, whereas the House bill stated that a court “shall” award such fees. Also, the Senate version did not contain a provision allowing citizens to recover punitive damages for being SLAPPed.

On July 6 the Senate voted 16-13, refusing to adopt the House version of the bill over its own. The Senate then took it one step further — tabling its bill by a 17-12 vote. That vote effectively killed anti-SLAPP efforts for this legislative session, which had been scheduled to end on June 30.

Jeffrey Lamb, chairman of Oregon Communities for a Voice in Annexation, said the Senate's action would “lead to a lessening of citizen involvement in every public arena.”

Lamb characterized the Senate amendments to the House version as “gutting the bill.” However, he reserved his harshest criticism for the Senate's action in tabling its own bill.

“The tabling of this legislation is a slap in the face of the First Amendment, a slap in the face of the freedom of petition and a slap in the face of citizen involvement in the community,” he said.

“The strategic purpose of this action was to slap the entire citizenry of Oregon,” he said.

Lamb also blamed lobbyists for builders and land developers for helping to defeat the bill. “There was too much money on the other side,” he said.