One year ago this month, 25 social justice, environmental, and civil liberties organizations joined forces to form the Protect the Protest task force to combat the threat of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) and to lessen the destruction of this legal bullying tactic. We’ve had a year of important successes, secured through the expertise and collective power of Protect the Protest’s membership, organizations big and small committed to upholding the rights of free speech and assembly. Still, the SLAPP threat remains, and will require creative advocacy, the stigmatization of SLAPP filers, and ultimately the strengthening of the legal architecture to ensure that courts are not co-opted as a tool of those who seek to silence protected speech.
SLAPPs are a tactic used by powerful interests in which the courts are used for retaliation rather than justice and to raise fear rather than real issues. For decades, powerful actors have filed these meritless lawsuits, knowing they can’t win, but that doesn’t matter to them. Redressing a harm or collecting damages is not the point of a SLAPP lawsuit; the point is to intimidate and silence activists, organizers, and others who speak out, tying them up in costly and stressful litigation that has no legitimate basis. SLAPPs masquerade as legitimate civil lawsuits but are an abuse of the court system and a threat to democracy. When corporations use the judicial system as their weapon, both the rule of law and people suffer.
Democracy depends on those who are willing to speak truth to power. That is precisely what Protect the Protest has done in its first year, and we’re just getting started.
We took on RICO and won. Twice. During its inaugural year, Protect the Protest lawyers earned an early victory when they defeated one of the country’s biggest SLAPP threats: the use of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act in SLAPP suits. The law firm of Kasowitz, Benson & Torres had attempted to use the RICO Act to equate environmental and social justice activism to mafia-like racketeering. Protect the Protest succeeded in getting RICO claims dismissed in two cases, one brought by Resolute Forest Products and the other brought by Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. In the ETP case, the judge issued a stinging dismissal of the lawsuit saying that ETP’s interpretation of RICO was “dangerously broad,” and that the law cannot be used to connect public criticism to remote criminal activities; using RICO in this way could “curtail almost any disagreeable, arguably protected speech.” This victory is evidence that Protect the Protest is not only able to win these cases but have judicial and legal backing in the strongest terms.
We Helped Build Community Resilience to SLAPPs. In March 2019,Protect the Protest published the An Activist Guide: Reducing Exposure to SLAPP Lawsuits, which describes the telltale signs of a SLAPP, how to protect yourself from being SLAPPed, and what to do if you are SLAPPed. Since that time, we have shared the guide on our website and social media numerous times and have used it to assist in trainings for those at risk of being SLAPPed, as well as those representing SLAPP victims.
We Took Up the Fight for Federal Anti-SLAPP Legislation. Over the last year, members of Protect the Protest have engaged with congressional offices and other non-governmental organizations to develop federal anti-SLAPP legislation. The passage of sound federal legislation on this topic would aide those who find themselves in federal court facing SLAPPs and would build on the work done by the 29 states that have passed anti-SLAPP laws.
ONGOING WORK & SERVICES
Despite these big wins, the SLAPP threat has not diminished. We still see SLAPPs being used by corporations and powerful individuals to silence sexual assault and harassment victims, racial justice activists, and environmental defenders, just to name a few. This is why Protect the Protest exists, and we’re here to help. Our task force offers a range of communications, campaigns, and legal assistance, including:
- In-person or online trainings for those looking to lessen their SLAPP risk and pre-publication review of campaign and communications materials, as well as advice on campaign and communications strategy;
- Connection with local legal counsel, advice on how to safely continue to speak out against powerful interests, diminishing the threat’s effectiveness, and amplification of your SLAPP story using our collective communications and campaigning power;
- Legal assistance in getting the SLAPP dismissed from court as quickly as possible to ensure that it is not successful in shutting down your speech.
Protect the Protest is proud of what we’ve built and what we have accomplished, and we have set lofty and necessary goals for the next year. Our RICO successes were a crucial win for protecting the rights to free speech and organizing, but they haven’t stopped the disingenuous tactics being used to silence dissent. That’s why we’re working with the broader movement to protect protest and dissent on related issues, such as the uptick in critical infrastructure legislation and free speech on campus legislation, as well as the use of forced arbitration clauses and non-disclosure agreements.
Help us show corporate bullies that an attack on one of us, is an attack on all of us! If you like what you’re reading, there is room for you in this fight. Below are a few ways that you can get involved.
- Membership: Protect the Protest is always looking for additional social justice, human rights, civil rights, and environmental justice organizations and movements to join the fight against corporate legal bullying. Submit a membership interest form here.
- Lawyers: We’re also looking to build a nationwide network of lawyers committed to defending SLAPPs in their states. If you’re a practicing attorney and you’re interested in joining our referral network, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Our democracy is only as strong as our ability to tell the truth and work together. SLAPPs and related legal bullying threaten our values and our ability to insist on a society that lives up to them. As long as bullies use the court system to silence dissent, Protect the Protest will have your back.
Thank you for joining us in this fight. Onward to the next year.