(The following is from my 1994 book, Not In My Back Yard: The Handbook (Silvercat Publications). It’s dated but still accurate. The references are no longer current.)
Watch Out for SLAPPs
SLAPP, a term coined in 1988, refers to a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. A Wall St. Journal article, referencing consumer advocate Ralph Nader, provides a succinct summary of what SLAPPs are all about.
“Corporations and developers have filed hundreds of civil suits against individuals or community groups in the past decade, Mr. Nader said. Usually, the plaintiffs allege libel, defamation, or interference with business in an effort to stop protesters from voicing criticism.
Targets of Slapp suits are varied: individuals who complain about development projects in letters to the editor, activists who lobby against industrial polluters, neighborhood groups that fight to uphold zoning restrictions. ” (Stephanie Simon, 7-9-91; see also Paul Duggan, 6-24-91).
SLAPPs are often dropped or dismissed eventually, but that is little comfort to those being sued because fighting them is an extremely expensive and time-consuming process. For this reason, many feel that SLAPPs have been effective in discouraging others from speaking out and pursuing their activist agendas.
In the last few years, activists have begun filing countersuits, called SLAPP-Back suits, alleging libel, abridgment of first amendment rights, malicious prosecution, and related abuses. Both general and punitive damages have been sought. One St. Louis activist was awarded $86 million in damages in a successful 1991 suit.
Though some SLAPP-Back suits have been successful, the legal process is both expensive and time-consuming. Several states have enacted laws that provide specific protection for the first amendment rights of persons testifying or speaking out as part of a public debate. Such state laws make SLAPPs easier to fight, but cannot eliminate all possibility of such intimidation.
The Citizen’s Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste (CCHW) offers a fact sheet on SLAPPs (ask for the SLAPP BACK FACT PACK) and monitors related court cases and legislation. (“Operation SLAPP-Back,” CCHW author, Everyone’s Backyard, 1991 Annual Report; Robert D. Richards, 8-16-92).