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SLAPP Lawsuits Stifle Discourse, Activists Say : Justice: People who speak out on public issues are being accused of defamation. Several states have tried to restrict such legal moves, but no law can guarantee immunity.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Retired wildlife biologist Art Hawkins has nurtured his sanctuary on the shores of Lake Amelia for 40 years.

So when a developer wanted to build townhouses across the lake, Hawkins worried about the environment. He did what he thought a good citizen should do: spoke at public meetings, wrote letters, circulated a petition.

And he got sued.

Hawkins believes he is among a growing number of people around the country slapped with lawsuits intended to shut them up.

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“Americans by the thousands are being sued simply for exercising one of our most cherished constitutional rights--speaking out on political issues,” wrote George Pring and Penelope Canan, professors at the University of Denver who have studied the issue for the last decade.

A Texas woman was sued for writing a letter to a newspaper calling a local landfill a “dump.” A group of about 60 Pennsylvania parents were sued for defamation for telling a school board that their community’s school buses were unsafe. Citizens fighting a proposed incinerator in New York were sued by their county governments.

“Short of a gun to the head, a greater threat to First Amendment expression can scarcely be imagined,” New York state Supreme Court Justice Nicholas Colabella wrote in a 1992 decision. (The New York Supreme Court is that state’s trial court.)

Pring and Canan dubbed them SLAPP suits, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. That name has caught on.

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Partly because of Hawkins’ testimony, Minnesota has joined seven other states in trying to deflect such suits. The state’s new law, which passed almost unanimously, makes it easier to get frivolous suits dismissed and collect reimbursement for attorneys’ fees as well as punitive damages. Similar laws are in effect in California, Delaware, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Washington, according to Pring.

The multimillion-dollar lawsuits often are camouflaged as suits about defamation, interference with business or conspiracy, the researchers say. But they say the goal is the same: stifling political expression.

“The most frightening effect of all is what they’re doing to public participation,” Pring said. “We pride ourselves on being a participatory democracy; we even like to think we invented it. But we’re destroying our own invention by allowing these cases to basically chill citizens into silence.”

Most suits ultimately are dismissed, and victims can file “SLAPP-back” countersuits, Pring said. But in the meantime, victims lose money and time, and the suits still have their intended effect by muzzling defendants’ speech and intimidating others who fear being sued.

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Attorney Fritz Knaak, representing the developer suing Hawkins for defamation, said true SLAPP suits are a problem. But he said the suit against Hawkins was not one. It’s not always an “evil, wicked developer” against an innocent citizen, he said.

“People need to be responsible for what they say,” Knaak said. “You don’t want to create an environment where just because I stand up in a council meeting . . . that I can say anything I please about you and your spouse and your dogs and have there be no consequences.”

Hawkins, a former wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says he was responsible. Inside the old farmhouse he shares with his wife of 54 years, he brings maps and books to a heavy wooden table--including textbooks he helped write and edit--to explain his concerns about ospreys and other threatened species that nest near the lake.

During the two-year case, he racked up more than $20,000 in legal bills to defend himself. His wife, Betty, described it as years of “lying awake at night, worrying, and getting up early and looking at maps.”

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“I might actually have been doing something constructive with all of that time,” said Hawkins, 81, who once studied under famous ecologist and Wilderness Society founder Aldo Leopold. Hawkins put his writing on hold and the couple quit going to Arizona for part of the winter, worried about legal developments in their absence.

The suit recently was settled out of court; Hawkins says he still feels silenced because details are confidential. He says he settled because the case could have dragged on for years and he did not want to spend his remaining years that way. The couple also worried about entrusting their fate--and their beloved farm--to a jury. But they remain disillusioned.

“We always thought the First Amendment meant what it said, that you are entitled to speak as long as what you say is in good faith and isn’t meant to slander anyone,” Hawkins said. “We thought that was the way this country worked.”


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