EDITORIAL: Some good news on freedom of speech

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Categories: Editorial, Opinion

It’s easy these days for any snippet of good news to get lost in the frenzy of the presidential election and the growing fears over coronavirus spikes.

But in a year where it seems like every day is Friday the 13th, citizens of New York got some good news earlier this week when it comes to their freedom of speech.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday signed long overdue legislation to update and expand the state’s law regarding Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation suits, commonly known as SLAPP suits.

The legislation (A5991/S0052A) prevents government entities and other wealthy individuals and organizations from using the state’s own court system to shut down public speech through frivolous lawsuits.

SLAPP suits have been used by government agencies and others with the financial means to wage lengthy and expensive court battles to threaten journalists, citizen activists, political candidates, bloggers and other critics.

More and more, they’ve been used by political campaigns, including the Trump presidential campaign, to try to deprive the public of information they need to know.

Just the threat of a lawsuit can have a chilling effect on free speech.

This legislation would discourage SLAPP suits by compelling the courts to award court costs and attorneys fees when legal actions brought against speakers are proven to be without a substantial basis in fact or law and that could not be supported by a substantial argument.

Having the truth on your side has not, until now, been enough to protect you.

Now these entities know that if they bring frivolous litigation as a means to intimidate and silence free speech, they’ll pay a heavy financial price.

With the signing of this bill, New York finally joins 30 other states that already protect their citizens from legal retribution in cases where they are simply exercising their First Amendment rights.

A lot of the credit for keeping this legislation alive for the past decade and for pushing each year to get the full Legislature to approve it goes to Brooklyn Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein.

Weinstein and her staff were stalwarts behind the scenes, monitoring legislation in other states and keeping in close contact with media organizations like the New York News Publishers Association on the progress of the bill. New York City-based state Sen. Brad Hoylman, another strong advocate for free speech in the Legislature, was instrumental in getting the bill passed in his house.

We can all use some good news these days.

The news that New York has taken a significant step toward protecting one of our fundamental rights is something to celebrate.

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