Meet Jim Baker, a retired Science teacher, from Kent, N.Y. He was sued for $64 million.
Meet Victor Monia, who is in the computer supply business in Saratoga, Calif. He was sued for $40 million.
And meet Rhoda Kornreich, of Rye, N.Y., who works part-time in a nearby office, and Catherine Crean, a sales representative from White Plains, N.Y. They were sued for $30 million.
Baker, Monia, Kornreich and Crean, environmentalists all, were SLAPPed. A couple of thousand other Americans have also been SLAPPed in recent years. The acronym, which was coined by sociology professor Penelope Canan and law professor George W. Pring of the University of Denver, stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. As denned by Canan and Pring, SLAPPs arc lawsuits that can chill, intimidate or otherwise harass people into silence by making it prohibitively expensive for them to pursue First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition government.
Following the 1988 publication of a paper on SLAPPs, the subject has become a hot topic in legal circles. A year and a half ago, SLAPPs were the subject of a colloquium held at Pace University School of Law in White Plains, a leading school in the burgeoning field of environmental law. Speakers included Canan, Pring, New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams and professors Ralph Michael Stein of Pace University School of Law and Richard O. Brooks of the Vermont Law School. The consensus was that SLAPPs seem to be proliferating almost everywhere. Police, teacher and other public-employee organizations are SLAPPing critics; companies are SLAPPing consumers; and landlords are SLAPPing tenants.
But it is land developers, in particular, who have seized upon SLAPPs as a way to shut up opponents. They've been filing multimillion-dollar damage suits for defamation, libel, interference with economic advantage and conspiracy, among other things. As speaker after speaker noted at Pace, just appearing before a town board or writing a letter to the editor can get an individual sued by a plaintiff who enjoys a tremendous edge in financial and legal resources.
Among the examples cited:
?In California, the League of Women Voters of Beverly Hills wrote letters to the
Los Angeles Times
Beverly Hills Courier criticizing a proposed condominium development and supporting a voter initiative to stop it. Maple Properties, the developer, SLAPPed league members for $63 million. That suit—for libel, slander, interference with prospective economic advantage, deprivation of equal protection and conspiracy—went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which let stand an appellate court decision in favor of the League of Women Voters (and also awarded $20,000 in attorney fees and court costs to the league).
?In Evergreen, Colo., a developer, Lockport-Gayno, SLAPPed a $40 million abuse of process and conspiracy suit on Protect Our Mountain Environment (POME), a community group, after POME challenged county approval of a commercial and residential project that Lockport-Gayno proposed, the site of which was an elk meadow. The Colorado supreme court found in favor of POME. The supreme court also adopted rules so that future courts could expedite and dismiss SLAPP suits, based on the First Amendment's Petition Clause.
Although Canan and Pring have found that the overwhelming majority of the more than 300 SLAPP suits they studied were eventually dropped or thrown out of court—the chances of having a case thrown out of court are highest in instances in which the First Amendment Petition Clause is used as a defense—the average case dragged on for three years, costing defendants time, money and emotional stress.