This spring, I met with a nonprofit community group to discuss a lawsuit. A business was suing one of their members.
This spring, I met with a nonprofit community group to discuss a lawsuit.
A business was suing one of their members. The litigation was not alleging theft, property damage, or a failure to pay, but instead was filed after the exercise of a constitutionally protected right of free speech. Because of this suit, the tiny community nonprofit faced thousands of dollars in court costs and the steep emotional toll of defending a lawsuit. The group was asking for my help. They wanted anti-SLAPP legislation.
SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. SLAPP lawsuits intend to bully, frighten, and silence.
Investigative news outlets like 60 Minutes have been “SLAPPed” for exposing corruption. President Trump lobbed a half a billion dollar SLAPP suit against CNN for running a critical story about his “big lie” election fraud nonsense. My former boss, Jay Leno, was SLAPPed several times for bad jokes. When I was in high school, Oprah was SLAPPed for millions by the meat industry when she said on air that she would stop eating burgers over mad cow concerns. These celebrity defendants had deep pockets and big-time lawyers who could easily fight back.
But all too often, suits are waged against individuals, small nonprofits, and community groups. Victims of abuse and other advocates who speak out, along with folks who will struggle to pay for legal representation become targets. They are easy marks for bullies. And sadly, Pennsylvania does not have a legal statute to protect them.
The group sitting around the table in my office proposed reviving an old anti-SLAPP bill. A bill that had been introduced in Harrisburg sessions of the past, but never went anywhere.
But with my fellow Democrats now in charge in Harrisburg, a party focused on supporting working people and the underdog, it seemed to me that now might be a great time to reintroduce this bill.
I reached out to our state House Democratic policy chair, State. Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, along with a couple of my colleagues on the state House Judiciary Committee, including Rep. Joe Hohenstein, Rep. Liz Hanbidge. I also reached out to colleagues who had previously worked on similar legislation – Rep. Pat Gallagher, Rep. Tim Brennan, Rep. Melissa Cerrato, and Rep. Lisa Borowski.
In a few weeks, we wrote and introduced the Free Speech Protection Act – The Anti-SLAPP Act.
This legislation, HB 1466, sets a clear path for judges to quickly dismiss a frivolous lawsuit against an individual or group if it clearly intended to silence free speech. Our bill avoids the hassle of lengthy legal cases and the exorbitant associated legal fees caused by SLAPP suits. We wrote the law so that individuals or groups being wrongly sued could recuperate their legal fees and court expenses. We also included a “SLAPP back” provision, allowing judges to award damages to the wronged party.
Many of my fellow Democrats co-sponsored our common sense bill, as did a conservative Republican member, Rep. Lee James, who represents Venango and parts of Crawford County in Northwest Pennsylvania. And this month, our Anti-SLAPP Act passed the state House Judiciary Committee and then passed unanimously on October 5 with a total House vote count of 202-0! The bill now goes to the state Senate, where we hope they will pass it, and move it onto Gov. Shapiro’s desk for his signature.
I spoke with the community members the other day, and unfortunately they are still reeling from the effects of the SLAPP lawsuit. But they are thrilled by the passage of HB1466 in the House. This bill was a victory for our community, and a message to bullies – don’t mess with our community. But we’re not past the finish line yet. Please call your state senator and ask them to pass HB1466! And, What are some possible bills you think I should be fighting for?
Khan represents Manayunk, Roxborough, parts of Chestnut Hill, and East Falls. For more information about the anti-SLAPP bill or to contact him, visit reptarik.com