Congressman introduces federal anti-SLAPP bill

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Tennessee congressman has introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives known as “the Citizen Participation Act of 2009” that would provide protection for people who are sued for exercising their First Amendment rights of petition and speech. If passed, the measure by Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., would become the first federal anti-SLAPP law on the books.

SLAPP is an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. A SLAPP suit seeks to silence an individual or a business simply because that person or entity has spoken out or exercised First Amendment rights. The filer of a SLAPP suit hopes to stop criticism — even if it is true or concerns an important public issue.

“Civil lawsuits and counterclaims, often claiming millions of dollars in damages, have been and are being filed against thousands of individuals, organizations, and businesses based upon their valid exercise of the rights to petition or free speech,” according to the legislation’s findings. “SLAPPs are an abuse of the judicial process that waste judicial resources and clog the already over-burdened court dockets.”

The bill, H.R. 4364, provides immunity from civil liability for those who petition the government “without knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of falsity.” It allows a party to file a “special motion to dismiss” 45 days after being served with a lawsuit, seeking to declare the suit a SLAPP. The party seeking to dismiss the SLAPP suit must make an initial showing “that the claim at issue arises from an act in furtherance of the constitutional right of petition or free speech.”

“Rep. Cohen introduced similar legislation in Tennessee when he was a state legislator and is the author of the Tennessee anti-SLAPP law,” said Steven Broderick, communications director for Cohen. “He feels very strongly that there should be similar protection at the federal level.

“People are being sued for their legitimate complaints — for exercising their First Amendment rights — and there needs to be a mechanism in place to provide them some protection,” Broderick said.

The measure has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

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