Washington is about to become a safer place for the public to participate in government. Deep-pocketed bullies won’t be allowed to use the courts to intimidate people into silence anymore.
In the past, the bullying has come by way of a SLAPP lawsuit. That stands for “Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation.” A typical SLAPP suit goes something like this:
A rich company, developer or individual proposes something controversial. Maybe it’s an office park precariously close to some wetlands or a sweetheart tax break to bring jobs to town. Some people speak out against it. They form an opposition group that meets in someone’s living room. They testify at city council meetings. And they write letters to the local newspaper pointing out problems with the proposal and urging officials to reject it.
So far, so good. That’s just democracy in action. But then, SLAPP! The company doesn’t want all that bad publicity mucking up the chances of approval and tarnishing its name, so it files lawsuits against the agitators. It files one against the local newspaper, too, so that reporters think twice about covering what’s happening. The suits seek damages for slander, commercial disparagement, tortious interference, civil conspiracy and other scary-sounding accusations.
Defending against those meritless lawsuits isn’t cheap or easy. There’ll be discovery, lawyers to hire and public exposure that could drag on for years. Better, then, just to shut up and make it all go away. At least that’s what the company hopes people decide. It’s intimidation through litigation, and it works.
SLAPP suits also have been used against the #MeToo movement and women who allege sexual assault.
Washington had an anti- SLAPP law, but the State Supreme Court struck it down in 2015 because it denied litigants access to a jury trial.
This year, the Legislature passed an upgraded version that addresses the court’s concerns. With Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature last week, Washington becomes the first state to adopt a Uniform Public Expression Protection Act (UPEPA). Most states have anti-SLAPP laws, but UPEPA is a special version that seeks to standardize them so that litigants can’t venue shop.
It was bipartisan work in Olympia. Sen. Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat, and Sen. Mike Padden, a Spokane Republican, took the lead advancing UPEPA. Meanwhile, Allied Newspaper Publishers, a press organization, provided strong support. The local free press defended the public good again.
UPEPA would fast-track review of dubious lawsuits. If it’s a SLAPP suit, it would be dismissed quickly. There’d be no discovery, and the defendant could collect reasonable attorney fees. But if there’s merit to the accusations, the case would proceed.
Courts shouldn’t be a tool that moneyed interests can use to bludgeon people into silence. Democracy works best when all voices have a chance to be heard without fear of litigious retribution.