Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Expanding the Definition of SLAPP Suits

The pernicious effects of SLAPP suits are further exacerbated when catalyzed by the Internet. The New York Times recently reported on the story of Justin Kurtz, a college student from Michigan, who wrote critical remarks about a towing company, T&J Towing, that wrongfully towed his car. Kurtz went on to form a Facebook page titled “Kalamazoo Residents Against T&J Towing,” in an effort to make others aware of what he saw as unethical actions on the part of T&J. Unbeknownst to Kurtz when he created the group, it would soon gather attention at a viral pace. After the group acquired 800 followers, many of whom had similar stories of T&J wrongfully removing their vehicles, the towing company filed a $750,000 lawsuit against Kurtz for defamation (Frosch, 2010).

The parallel to traditional SLAPP suits becomes immediately apparent: just like our hypothetical example of the cell company suing us at the zoning board meeting for opposing their interests, T&J files this suit against Kurtz in the hopes of silencing him and dissuading others from speaking out against them. But it also illustrates an important distinction between modern interpretations of SLAPPs and traditional SLAPP suits: while Pring & Canan’s original definition of SLAPP suits was narrowly focused on matters pertaining to the Petition Clause of the First Amendment, citizens’ right to petition government for redress of grievances, the modern definition engages with a broader type of free speech – citizens’ right to speak freely on a matter of public concern, a right granted by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

Pring & Canan state that one of the reasons that they limited the scope of their study to cases relating to the Petition Clause was to “provide a neutral, manageable, easily applied definition whereby even opponents can agree on whether a case is a SLAPP or not” (9). So it stands to reason that there exist cases that are outside of the scope of Pring & Canan’s definition, yet still carry out the deleterious effects discovered in the original study. These broader interpretations of the definition of a SLAPP suit were first addressed in the drafting of California’s anti-SLAPP legislation.

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