On June 3, Gov. Jared Polis signed into law a measure that will make it easier for individuals and organizations to defend themselves against SLAPP suits.
A SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) is a kind of lawsuit that critics claim are designed to shut down free speech. Evan Mascagni, the policy director of the Public Participation Project, works with his organization to fight for national anti-SLAPP laws.
“SLAPP is a frivolous lawsuit that’s filed to intimidate or harass or silence a critic … What your governor just signed is an attempt to try and stop those types of lawsuits,” said Mascagni. “If the defendant can show that the speech, activity or petition activity was protected by the First Amendment, then they can get that lawsuit dismissed and get their attorneys paid for.”
SLAPP suits are often brought against organizations and protests defending animal and environmental rights. Just last year, a Colorado State University student was hit with a SLAPP suit from Extraction Oil and Gas for participating in a protest at a new fracking site in Weld County.
In recent years, SLAPP suits have become more common and expanded into new territories.
“What we see more recently with the rise of online speech and user-generated content websites are individuals being sued for giving their honest opinion,” said Mascagni. “Some of the more egregious SLAPPs you see with the rise of the Me Too movement are survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault who are being sued by their abusers for speaking out.”
SLAPP suits are often successful because they target individuals and small organizations who cannot afford to spend their time and money on these legal battles.
“People will muzzle themselves,” said Mascagni. “Anti-SLAPP laws are very, very important because they can allow someone who gets sued to go out and find an attorney … knowing that they can recover their attorney fees from the SLAPP filer and won’t get dragged through the court for as long because these motions are generally heard pretty quickly compared to a trail or a full litigation process.”
Colorado has now become the 29th state in the U.S. with anti-SLAPP protections.
However, Colorado’s history with SLAPP goes back to the beginning. The term SLAPP was first coined by two professors at the University of Denver, George Pring and Penelope Canan, in their book, “SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out.”
“It came out of Colorado so it’s really nice to see that somewhat 40 years later … Colorado has recognized the importance of protecting against SLAPP,” said Mascagni.
As states like Colorado begin to implement their own anti-SLAPP protections, the Public Participation Project continues to fight for federal anti-SLAPP laws. You can learn more about their organization at anti-slapp.org.