Anti-SLAPP measure easily clears Oregon House

Monday, May 17, 1999

The Oregon House of Representatives has overwhelmingly passed a bill 49-9 designed to stop lawsuits that are filed in an effort to silence public dissent. The measure takes aim at SLAPP suits, otherwise known as strategic lawsuits against public participation.

Proponents of so-called anti-SLAPP legislation insist the measures are necessary to protect citizens from being sued for their criticism of a variety of businesses, such as land- development and building companies, at city council meetings and other public hearings.

The legislation states 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 contains certain provisions designed to strengthen protection for citizens' free-speech rights that were not contained in an earlier anti-SLAPP bill first introduced in the Senate.

The House bill contains a provision allowing a court to quickly dismiss a groundless lawsuit. “The court shall expedite any motion for summary judgment filed by a defendant that asserts the immunity provided by this section,” the bill reads.

The bill also provides “reasonable attorneys fees” and other legal costs to defendants in SLAPP suits. Finally, the measure allows those who successfully defeat a SLAPP suit to obtain punitive damages from the person who filed the suit.

“The key to this bill is that it provides a way for early dismissal of these suits before citizens are burdened with crushing legal bills,” said Jeffrey Lamb, chairman of Oregon Communities for a Voice in Annexation. He said that the other key features of the bill are the availability of punitive damages and the recovery of legal fees.

Lamb's group has shifted its support away from an earlier measure introduced in the Senate to the House bill. “We have put all our eggs in one basket,” Lamb said.

Several other groups in Oregon lobbied House legislators to adopt an anti-SLAPP bill, including the League of Women Voters and 1000 Friends of Oregon.

“Individuals aren't the only ones harmed by SLAPP suits,” said Liz Frankel of the Corvallis League of Women Voters. “SLAPP suits are all about community intimidation,” she said.

“The overwhelming vote in the House (on May 12) sends a clear message to the Senate,” Lamb said. “We just hope the measure does not become bogged down in a Senate committee. We know the opposition will be stronger in the Senate.”

Frankel called the House vote a “major step towards protecting public participation.” She says the goal now is to get the measure through the Senate without changes.

Lamb and Frankel both say they expect a tougher fight in the Senate, as lobbyists for builders and land developers will increase their efforts against the measure.

The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has not set a hearing date.

At least a dozen other states have passed similar laws to protect people from meritless lawsuits. A California bill containing features of an anti-SLAPP law was signed into law in 1992. A similar New York act took effect in 1993. Other states with anti-SLAPP laws on the books include Delaware, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Washington.