EDITORIAL: Bill needed to protect free speech

Lawmakers should expand statute to stop frivolous lawsuits that attempt to suppress free speech
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Categories: Editorial, Opinion

And one of the biggest threats to our democracy is the ability of the wealthy and powerful to silence free speech.

They do so by using the people’s own court system to file frivolous lawsuits against journalists, authors, bloggers, documentary film makers, civic organizations, protesters, political candidates and others.

Such suits are called SLAPP suits, which stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

Usually used by government bodies to silence citizens, more and more these suits are being used by political campaigns and other individuals to silence critical viewpoints.

Most recently, the Trump campaign and the Trump family have filed frivolous litigation to try to stop news organizations from publishing critical articles, opposing political campaigns and broadcast stations to stop running ads critical of the president, and a member of the Trump family from publishing a book critical of the president.

The goal of these suits is to discourage people from speaking out for fear of being dragged into court, where they then would be forced to spend money on legal fees, go through the time and hassle of a court fight, and risk losing a large monetary verdict.

That kind of intimation is effective and contagious, serving as a chill factor on potential criticism in the future.

That’s not just a threat to individuals; it’s a threat to our entire democracy. And government must do all it can to protect the people’s right to free speech.

State lawmakers have an opportunity to help preserve our free speech by expanding the state’s anti-SLAPP statute.

The new bill (A5991/S0052A) would cover “any communication in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public concern” and “any other lawful conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of free speech in connection with an issue of public concern.”

To discourage SLAPP suits, the legislation would compel the courts to award court costs and attorney fees in actions proven to be without a substantial basis in fact or law and that could not be supported by a substantial argument.

The bill has the strong backing of the New York News Publishers Association.  

And a New York State Bar Association committee urged the full organization to support the bill, noting that it does nothing to affect legitimate claims.

The Legislature only expects to be back in session a short time.

It’s vital to the free speech rights of New Yorkers that lawmakers in both houses pass this legislation before they leave for the summer and that the governor signs it when it gets to his desk.

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