Empty Suits: Defamation law and the price of dissent

(strategic lawsuits against public participation. SLAPPs target people or organizations that have spoken out on matters of public concern… wealthy, often corporate plaintiffs pursuing defendants of modest means… resort to the legal system to intimidate and silence them” by their own statements in the press both the plaintiff and the lead council in this matter have admitted this REPEATEDLY. This is their plan and their overall agenda with this frivolous lawsuit against me. In this case it isn’t Big Business doing it but rather the State Department funded Georgetown University’s law school combined with their connection to the complicit media who also have a FINANCIAL stake in shutting down alternative news sites. “No fake news, in other words, that hurts the king’s ratings” Or hurts the Queen’s coronation to the throne. Thank you very much for the link Nancy.)

UPDATE: Another recent case of another SLAPP getting slapped down in court (sorry for the pun but thanks again Nancy)

(H/T Nancy) by Ian MacDougall  from Harpers

… In 2010, Calhoun decided to take action. That year, she joined Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, a community group composed chiefly of local retirees. Its primary mission was to oppose the storage of coal ash at Arrowhead, which was bought out of bankruptcy that same year by Green Group Holdings, a national waste-management company. For years, Black Belt Citizens engaged in a fierce but civil dispute with Green Group. Eventually, however, the company’s patience with its activist rivals grew thin. In April 2016, it filed a $30 million defamation lawsuit against Calhoun and three others affiliated with Black Belt Citizens in federal court in Mobile.

The story of Green Group and Black Belt Citizens is growing ever more common as social media transforms traditional forums of speech. The internet has made it possible for activists to reach a mass audience — even a global one — at zero cost. At the same time, their targets have turned to the courts to impose a cost on that activism. It’s not cheap, after all, to defend even a frivolous lawsuit.

But there is a second element to the story, a more unsettling and pernicious one — a shift in how speech values are prioritized in the United States. The Supreme Court’s First Amendment docket, once dominated by cases litigating the speech rights of individuals — flag burners and pamphleteers — is now rife with cases concerned with the speech rights of corporations, cases that put corporate entities on par with, and often elevate them above, their human counterparts. Meanwhile, the country has witnessed a broader retreat from the long-standing aversion to restricting free expression, both on campuses and in statehouses where legislators have worked to criminalize anti-corporate speech. As the norms that once checked litigious companies erode, activist groups like Black Belt Citizens are at increasing risk of being snuffed out.

In the late Seventies, an Environmental Defense Fund attorney named Rock Pring began to notice something unusual. With alarming frequency, corporate polluters were suing environmentalists who had spoken out or filed lawsuits against them. A few years later, Pring, by then a law professor at the University of Denver, set out with a sociologist colleague named Penelope Canan to study the phenomenon. In a 1988 paper, they came up with a name for these cases: “strategic lawsuits against public participation.” SLAPPs target people or organizations that have spoken out on matters of public concern. Their operational logic is grounded in resource asymmetry — wealthy, often corporate plaintiffs pursuing defendants of modest means, frequently activists. Instead of engaging with their less moneyed critics, the plaintiffs resort to the legal system to intimidate and silence them.

Because they target speech, SLAPPs often take the form of defamation lawsuits. The modern tort of defamation — false speech that harms another person’s reputation — has its roots in historical efforts by the powerful to insulate themselves from the destabilizing influence of bad PR. In 1275, a formative British defamation statute forbade anyone to “be so hardy to tell or publish any false news or tales whereby discord or occasion of discord or slander may grow between the king and his people, or the great men of the realm.” No fake news, in other words, that hurts the king’s ratings

To succeed, SLAPPs don’t need to have much legal merit, and as a rule they don’t. “SLAPPs are losers in the courthouse but winners in the real world,” Pring told me. By capitalizing on the uncertainty and the cost — in time, energy, and money — of the litigation process itself, Pring and Canan observed in their 1996 book SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out, the suits “encourage the active to return to the vast ranks of uninvolved and apathetic Americans.”…

By then, the lawsuit had taken on a taboo quality in Uniontown. Residents “were so afraid that they didn’t want to use the word ‘lawsuit’ — not out loud,” Eaton said. If they spoke of the case at all, they did so only in whispers and coded language — “it” or “the thirty million dollars” — he told me, as if speaking about it directly might get them sued too.

In October, after three and a half months, a magistrate judge in Mobile recommended that the lawsuit be dismissed. Most of Black Belt Citizens’ statements “were protected by the First Amendment as opinion and/or rhetorical hyperbole concerning a matter of public interest,” she wrote…

[read more here]

One Response

  1. Reblogged this on deinvestiture.

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