Strategic lawsuit against public participation

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(Redirected from SLAPP)

A strategic lawsuit against public participation ("SLAPP") is a form of litigation filed by a large corporation or in some cases, an individual plaintiff to intimidate and silence a less powerful critic by so severely burdening them with the cost of a legal defense that they abandon their criticism. The acronym was coined in the 1980s by University of Colorado professors Penelope Canan and George W. Pring.

The U.S. state of California enacted Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16 in 1992, a statute intended to prevent the misuse of litigation in SLAPP suits. It provides for a special motion which a defendant can file at the outset of a lawsuit to strike a complaint where the complaint arises from conduct that falls within the rights of petition and free speech. The statute expressly applies to any writing or speech made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a legislative, executive, or judicial proceeding, or any other official proceeding authorized by law, but there is no requirement that the writing or speech be promulgated directly to the official body.

The filing of an anti-SLAPP motion prevents the plaintiff from amending the complaint and stays all discovery. If the special motion is denied, the filing of an appeal immediately stays the trial court proceedings as to each cause of action. Defendants prevailing on a SLAPP (including any subsequent SLAPP appeal) are entitled to a mandatory award of reasonable attorney’s fees. About a dozen other states including New York, Oregon, Washington, and Massachusetts have followed California's example with similar statutory protection.

California's Code of Civil Procedure § 425.17 corrects abuse of the anti-SLAPP statute (CCP § 425.16). Signed into law on September 6, 2003 this statute prohibits anti-SLAPP motions in response to public interest and class actions when certain conditions are met, and actions against a business that arise from commercial statements or conduct of the business.

There is no direct equivalent of a SLAPP statute in U.S. federal law; the closest available remedy is the Noerr-Pennington doctrine in federal antitrust law. According to Canan and Pring, this situation is probably because of differences in pleading requirements between federal and state civil procedure.

California and most states operate under a "code pleading" regime, in which a complaint must be quite specific as to the underlying factual contentions. Thus, the there is less of a risk that an anti-SLAPP motion will kick out legitimate cases, because the burden is already on the plaintiff to research the factual foundation of their complaint before filing suit. In contrast, federal civil procedure operates under a more recent "notice pleading" regime, in which a complaint need only include a "short and plain" notice of the claims to be asserted. This system offers plaintiffs the advantage of suing first and discovering the underlying facts later without having to worry about statutes of limitations (which is still a major problem with code pleading). But notice pleading also has a severe disadvantage in that allowing the use of an anti-SLAPP motion would result in the dismissal of many legitimate cases.

However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has allowed California litigants to use their state's special motion in federal district courts located in California, in cases where the court is hearing at least one California state law claim through the doctrine of supplemental jurisdiction.

Internet message board posters are a common SLAPP target, but no one is immune. Oprah Winfrey, as a defendant, won a SLAPP against the cattle industry and Barbara Streisand, as a plaintiff, lost a SLAPP against an aerial photographer. Critics of the Church of Scientology claim that the organization regularly files SLAPP lawsuits against its opponents, and that the practice was written into Scientology's texts by L. Ron Hubbard.

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SLAPP outside the USA

A number of lawsuits in Canada, Australia and Britain have been identified as SLAPPs, or at least lawsuits intended solely to intimidate and discourage public participation. However, protection is limited as none of these countries have anti-SLAPP laws.

In February 2005 the European Court of Human Rights found that Helen Steel and David Morris did not receive a fair trial while defending a libel action brought by McDonald's in the United Kingdom. Known as the McLibel case, the two had been found guilty in 1994 of libelling the company in a leaflet. The court ruled that, because legal aid is not available to libel defendants, their right to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated. They were awarded £24,000 damages, plus costs.

Further reading

  • George W. Pring and Penelope Canan, Slapps: Getting Sued for Speaking Out, (Temple University Press, 1996). ISBN 1566393698
  • Michelangelo Delfino and Mary E. Day, Be careful who you SLAPP, (MoBeta Pub, 2002). ISBN 0972514104

See also

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