Editorial Comment

Smacking down SLAPPs

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A SLAPP is a strategic lawsuit against public participation.

Meritless lawsuits designed to silence free speech with the power of the pocketbook can be a problem for newspapers like The Riverdale Press. They can also be a problem for you.

If you speak out at public meetings, hand out flyers, or even drive a hard campaign against a political opponent, you are vulnerable to anybody who has enough money to hire a lawyer and make you hire one, too.

But, you may say, the First Amendment protects free speech. It’s true, to be found liable for defamation you need to say something false and be found “grossly irresponsible” in how you arrived at the misstatement of fact. If your speech is against a public figure, you must know or suspect that what you are saying is untrue.

In either case, opinions don’t count, neither does the truth, even if it’s harmful.
None of that matters when you’re slapped with a SLAPP.

Even if you win, you lose your weight in gold — because in New York State, you are unlikely to recover attorney’s fees and the only way you’ll get the case dismissed under the state’s anti-SLAPP statute is if the entity suing you is a “public applicant or permittee” and the claim against you is for “action involving public petition and participation.”

That means if your child blogs in his or her spare time, if you comment on news stories on the Web, if you happen to make anybody with deep pockets angry for any reason, you are not protected under the state’s anti-SLAPP law.

That doesn’t mean that you, or we, should stop speaking out. It means Albany should amend the law to protect us against the chilling effect of SLAPPs. Because they are meritless, these lawsuits are not designed to win but rather to silence speech and make naysayers think twice before opening their mouths. Small newspapers and individuals are the most likely to be on the receiving end of these legal claims.

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