A Philadelphia state senator is proposing laws so people don’t get “slapped” with unfair legal fees while utilizing their Freedom of Speech.
Senator Larry Farnese (D-Philadelphia) proposed legislation to combat what he calls "frivolous" litigation known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP).
According to Cornell University Law School, SLAPPs are lawsuits often filed by corporations against an activist or group of activists that disagree with the corporation’s actions.
They usually take the form of lawsuits claiming libel, slander or restraint of business.
Farnese said these lawsuits pressure Pennsylvanians to give up their first amendment rights.
“These civic associations and these individuals are being are being papered to death, literally, and they can no longer afford to pay the high cost of representation,” Farnese said. “So they give up their own right of free speech to have their opinions voiced.”
He said many times the corporations do not even expect to go to trial – they just want to draw the process out and make it expensive.
According to Farnese, Pennsylvania does not really have mechanisms to protect people from SLAPPs.
“These parties are paying legal costs if they can afford a lawyer,” Farnese said. “If not, they are putting their homes up to get legal council, so they don’t lose their property and their assets.”
In 2000, the state legislature did pass an anti-SLAPP measure, but it only applies to environmental law and regulations.
His legislation proposes the commonwealth expand its limited regulations against the lawsuits.
“Really what this law would do would allow at a very early stage of the lawsuit a determination by the judge that the case is either legitimate or not legitimate,” Farnese said.
He said he created the bill after a civic association was forced to close down in Philadelphia because of nuisance lawsuits from developers who were unhappy with positions the group took.
According to Farnese, SLAPPs are very common throughout the state, and he heard three hours worth of testimony from people who were victims of the lawsuits during a public hearing April 24.
“It’s a Pennsylvania problem, it is a problem that is in communities throughout the state,” Farnese said. “And it is something that the entire nation is dealing with on a state-by-state basis and is enacting these laws so that these types of issues do not arise.”
27 states have adopted anti-SLAPP laws. Farnese's bill is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee.