State Sen. Larry Farnese of Philadelphia will introduce legislation meant to protect community and civic organizations from frivolous lawsuits.
Farnese was spurred into action by the dissolution of the Old City Civic Association in Philadelphia, which he says was overwhelmed by lawsuits that steadily increased their insurance premiums until they could not afford them anymore.
The Old City Civic Association would regularly weigh in on issues of development, zoning and liquor licensing, and Farnese said they would often get hit with SLAPPs — strategic lawsuits against public participation — by developers and business owners.
“This is the sort of litigation either threatened or brought that deters the groups from getting involved,” Farnese said.
As the bill is written, it would apply only to registered nonprofit organizations and individuals participating in public meetings. Protected communications are defined as “participation in law or regulation related to an issue in the public interest.”
Specifically, it must be an issue that is mediated by a government agency, like the transfer of a liquor license, the lack of handicap access at a restaurant, or the development of a new shopping center.
The legislation would make it easier for community organizations to have SLAPP lawsuits thrown out.
Farnese says the passage of this legislation will help citizens be more active in their communities.
“These community organizations play the role to preserve the quality of life, and if their ability to do that is deterred or prohibited, we have a significant problem,” he said.
Twenty-seven other states, in addition to the District of Columbia and Guam, have passed anti-SLAPP legislation. Pennsylvania passed anti-SLAPP legislation in 2000, but the law only applies to environmental regulation.
Sen. Jim Brewster, who represents parts of Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, is one of four co-sponsors of the bill. If passed, the act would take effect 60 days after its passage.