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One Way to Try to Silence a Critic: Bring a Lawsuit

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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: What do you call a lawsuit that appears to be intended to suppress public speech?

RS: To critics it's a SLAPP -- a strategic lawsuit against public participation. University of Denver law professor George Pring, co-author of the book "SLAPPs: Getting Sued For Speaking Out," explains.

One Way to Try to Silence a Critic: Bring a Lawsuit
One Way to Try to Silence a Critic: Bring a Lawsuit

GEORGE PRING: "The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, like most of the constitutions around the world, or the majority, guarantees its people a right of free speech or freedom of expression. The one thing that the United States Constitution does, that many other countries' do not do, is to guarantee your right to speak your views to your government officials."

RS: "Could you give us an example?"

GEORGE PRING: "A very common example is people will go to a city council zoning hearing and speak out against a new development. People will go to a school board meeting and criticize a bad teacher. People will write a letter to the mayor, to the governor reporting graft and corruption."

AA: "What gets people sued for doing that?"

GEORGE PRING: "What we discovered in the nineteen eighties was that people were suddenly getting sued for millions of dollars. So that the opponents -- whether it's the real estate developer or the bad teacher or the person accused of graft and corruption, instead of meeting them in that same public forum, instead tries to suppress that communication to government by filing a very scary, big multi-million dollar lawsuit, which we found has no chance of winning. But what doesn't win in court often wins in the real world."

RS: "Well, what are their grounds for this lawsuit?"

AA: "Or is it based on accusations of, what, of slander, defamation?"

GEORGE PRING: "Thirty-five to forty percent of SLAPPs -- strategic lawsuits against public participation in government -- are filed based on defamation, libel, slander. A generic, you know, personal injury claim. Another big group of them are filed for so-called business interference, interference with a contract.

"The average running time to get these cases dismissed, we found, was three years. About the only way SLAPP victims lose is by giving up, ultimately. Almost all of the cases, ninety-five, ninety-some percent of them are dismissed at least at the first trial level or at the next appeals level."

RS: "Well, what remedies do you suggest that would bring both parties to the table to agree to stop these kinds of lawsuits?"

GEORGE PRING: "Kick them out of court quickly. More than half of the states in the United States since we published our book on SLAPPs in nineteen ninety-six, more than half of the states have adopted anti-SLAPP laws along the lines of our model that we put in the book. And right now the United States Congress is considering an anti-SLAPP bill that probably will pass within a year or so."

AA: Law professor George Pring estimates that hundreds of thousands of SLAPPs have been filed in the last forty years. He can't be sure. "SLAPPers don't file their lawsuits under S," he says. The lawsuits are camouflaged.

RS: Nor can he say just how successful state laws designed to identify SLAPPs have been in reducing them.

GEORGE PRING: "New York State has adopted one of the weakest, least protective SLAPP laws -- and New York attorneys tell us SLAPPs have gone way down. California has adopted one of the strongest, most protective anti-SLAPP laws. As far as we can tell there are more SLAPPs filed in California now. They get dismissed quicker.

"But what we do know is that with this sudden, huge change in the way Americans communicate, with all of the social networking ways to express yourself, oftentimes they get sued now in a SLAPP-type way because of what they put online.

RS: And that will be our topic next time with University of Denver law professor George Pring. That's WORDMASTER for this week. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.