Have you ever suffered an injustice and felt the need to speak up? Imagine living in a place where you can’t criticize those in power or speak openly about issues that are important to you. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem: it is already happening all over the world, including in the United States.
Democracy works best when all people have the ability to contribute to public debates, voice their opinions, and advocate for their communities’ interests. In the United States, we have the constitutional right to speak freely on issues of public concern, protest peacefully, and petition the government.
But we cannot take those rights for granted. In the United States and across the world, the powerful are turning the law into a weapon to silence their critics and trample on people’s rights.
“Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation” (SLAPPs) are a particularly dangerous tactic. SLAPPs target community leaders, journalists, whistleblowers, civil society advocates, and everyday people who exercise their constitutional rights to speak up about issues of public concern. SLAPPs masquerade as ordinary civil lawsuits, but their true purpose is to retaliate against those who speak truth to power.
A SLAPP does not even need to be successful in court to have its intended effect. It can take years for a court to dismiss a SLAPP, no matter how bogus the claims. Years of litigation can take a toll on the defendant’s finances, reputation, and morale. In many cases, SLAPP bullies hope that the defendant will settle the case, agreeing to remain silent in exchange for ending the litigation.
Unfortunately, SLAPPs are usually wrapped in complicated legal language and disguised as legitimate defamation cases or other personal injury lawsuits. No one ever admits to filing a SLAPP, but it is possible to distinguish a SLAPP from an ordinary civil lawsuit.
SLAPPs generally have one or more telltale signs:
The Protect the Protest task force is committed to ending the threat that SLAPPs pose to civil society, free speech, free press, and democracy more broadly. If SLAPP bullies have their way, the impacts of their lawsuits could ripple through society, creating a chilling effect on free speech. People would stop criticizing the powerful for fear of retaliation. Public interest advocates would choose to stay silent, rather than to hold the powerful accountable. We must defend our rights to speak out, to criticize, to engage, and to protest peacefully. Because democracy needs dissent.