Suits against activists could be tossed under bill

By Erich Wagner

It could soon be easier for Marylanders to fight lawsuits on the grounds that legal action limits their ability to get involved with controversial issues, such as a recent dispute over petition signatures to stop a slots parlor in Anne Arundel County.

A bill passed this year would strengthen the state’s Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) law, making it easier to prove that it applies to suits. The measure also extends the protection to all public matters, not just those that involve appearances before public officials. The measure is awaiting action by Gov. Martin O’Malley.

The provision was in the news recently, as anti-slots activists recently filed an anti-SLAPP action against the company seeking to develop Maryland’s largest casino at Arundel Mills mall. The Cordish Cos. had sued the Anne Arundel County Board of Supervisors of Elections for allegedly failing to check for fraudulent signatures on a petition to bring the issue of slots at Arundel Mills to referendum. The activists used the SLAPP law to fight the suit, arguing that it deterred citizens from exercising their political rights.

Del. Tom Hucker, D-Montgomery, introduced the bill. He said current law doesn’t do enough to protect activists from lawsuits brought on by private interests. Often, the suits are intended to intimidate opponents, he said.

The existing SLAPP protections only apply when public participation involves speaking before a government body. The law requires proof that a plaintiff intends to inhibit public participation.

The proposed new law protects all public participation, Hucker said, and makes it such that individuals must only prove that a lawsuit has inhibited their public participation. Intent is not an issue.

“I had heard about cases brought against civic activists, environmentalists, unions simply for using their First Amendment rights, brought not to win but just to intimidate defendants,” Hucker said. “Most people back off, because they don’t have the money to go to court with, but it’s obviously meant to intimidate people and to drag the process out.”

But House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell, who said he was a supporter of the original SLAPP legislation, and other Republicans voted against the bill. He said its effects weren’t clear.

“I didn’t think the case was made strongly enough for why we needed the change,” O’Donnell said.

Sen. Jennie Forehand, D-Montgomery, sponsored the bill in the Senate. She said she wanted to preserve the rights of “the little guy.”

“I wanted to be sure that everybody got a chance to say what they wanted to say,” Forehand said.

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