People and organizations that have been quieted by ongoing, frivolous lawsuits and mounting legal expenses today urged a state Senate panel to adopt State Sen. Larry Farneseâ€™s (D-S. Phila.) proposal to curtail the unfair practice.
Farneseâ€™s SB 1095 would expand Pennsylvaniaâ€™s limited regulations and give civic organizations, individuals and various groups the power to more easily have their case dismissed or recover attorney fees if they win a so-called Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or SLAPP.
â€œWhether it is the Old City Civic Association or any person who has been shut down because they are speaking up on an issue they believe is critical to their community or cause, SLAPPs have proven to be unfair and a detriment to open government,â€ Farnese (D-Philadelphia) said during the opening of the Senate Judiciary Committeeâ€™s public hearing on SB 1095.
â€œIt is rarely the intent of the party filing the suit to argue their case before a judge. What they want to do is drain the oppositionâ€™s resources or make it impossible for them to proceed in other ways until they are forced to go away,â€ Farnese said. â€œItâ€™s beyond wrong.â€
The Senate Judiciary Committee met in the Philadelphia Bar Association on Market Street here and gathered the personal stories of Joe Schiavo of the former Old City Civic Association, Steve Huntington of Crosstown Coalition, Matt Ruben of Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, Joe Marino of Passyunk Square Civic Association, and Barbara Capozzi of Packer Park Civic Association.
Schiavo called Farneseâ€™s proposal an important protection for community groups.
â€œThose who give their time as volunteers on behalf of their community and participate in civic organizations â€¦ should not have to face reprisals for participating in the public process that [governments] afford them,â€ Schiavo told the committee. â€œSB 1095 seems essential to preserve that fine-grain democratic mechanism of the local civic association.â€
While Northern Libertiesâ€™ Matt Ruben agreed Farneseâ€™s bill would provide legal protection, he said if any changes were made to the bill they should be made with an eye towards protecting a defendantâ€™s money and time.
â€œIf an anti-SLAPP law does not protect defendants â€¦ from the use of the legal process to extract money from us and to take time to drag things out and wear down peopleâ€™s will and inflict emotional duress then the anti-SLAPP law is not effective,â€ Ruben said.
The committee also heard expert testimony from Professor David Kairys from Temple Universityâ€™s Beasley School of Law; Andy Hoover, ACLU of Pennsylvaniaâ€™s legislative director; and Pennsylvania News Media Associationâ€™s Paula Knudsen and Melissa Melewsky.
Hoover said the ACLU is in favor of Farneseâ€™s legislation.
â€œWe believe SB 1095 does a good job of drawing a balance between access to courts and the abuse of courts to bully people for exercising their 1st Amendment rights,â€ Hoover said.
Farnese began working on SB 1095 last year when the Old City Civic Association disbanded after 40 years of service because the increased threat of SLAPPs made obtaining insurance coverage unfeasible. Twenty-seven states have adopted anti-SLAPP legislation. In 2000, Pennsylvania passed anti-SLAPP legislation that only applies only to environmental law and regulatory processes.
Throughout Pennsylvania and the US, SLAPPs have been filed against a wide variety of protected speech and expression activities, including writing a letter to the editor, circulating petitions, erecting a sign or displaying a banner on their property, complaining to school officials about teacher misconduct or unsafe conditions in the school, testifying before Congress or state legislatures, and filing a public-interest lawsuit.