Anti-SLAPP bill would be victory for free speech

Thirty-six states have anti-SLAPP laws. Ohio needs to make it 37.

A big step has been taken in that direction with the introduction of the Ohio Citizen Participation Act by State Senator Matt Huffman, R-Lima. It seeks to ensure that baseless lawsuits cannot be used to stifle discussions of public interest — a process known as SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).

Anti-SLAPP laws are clearly victories for free speech. They make sure those with deep pockets cannot buy a favorable verdict simply by prolonging cases.

At the same time, an anti-SLAPP law does not change existing laws against libel and slander. It remains illegal for people to intentionally say or publish false things meant to harm someone’s reputation.

Huffman’s Ohio Citizen Participation Act (Senate Bill 215) would set up a process that allows a judge to quickly dismiss a defamation lawsuit if he or she determines it was filed in response to constitutionally protected free speech.

Under current law, a judge’s decision on whether speech is constitutionally protected comes at the end of the case, which can be several years after it is filed. Given that the speech in question is protected under the First Amendment, the defendants often prevail. However, by the time a resolution is reached the defendant will have incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

The new law would give defendants the right to have a judge decide whether the speech is protected at the beginning of the case, not the end. That could allow cases to be resolved in months rather than years, thereby saving the defendant money and clearing the court’s docket for more worthy cases.

“We have to have public discussion about difficult issues, and somebody needs to do that, whether it’s the newspaper or online or TV or radio. And if those folks are inhibited in some way, it’s doing a disservice to government and a disservice to the Constitution,” the Lima Republican said Tuesday.

A similar bill was introduced by Huffman in in 2017, but failed to make it through the committee review process. The new version drops language aimed at protecting people who make anonymous internet comments, which Huffman believes caused it to lose support.

Huffman’s bill is modeled after the Texas and California laws, which are generally accepted as the best anti-SLAPP laws in the United States. Interestingly, Texas is a traditionally conservative state while California is viewed as a liberal state.

The Ohio proposal enjoys that same bipartisan support from a diverse coalition including the ACLU, Americans for Prosperity, the Ohio Association of Broadcasters, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, domestic violence advocacy groups, the motion picture industry, the Ohio News Media Association as well as Senate President Larry Obhof.

Ohio needs an anti-SLAPP law to ensure anyone targeted for exercising their First Amendment rights is protected.

State legislators need to line up behind it and vote it into law.

— The Lima News; Online: