Strategic lawsuits against public participation (also known as SLAPP suits or intimidation lawsuits), or strategic litigation against public participation, are lawsuits intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.
In a typical SLAPP, the plaintiff does not normally expect to win the lawsuit. The plaintiff's goals are accomplished if the defendant succumbs to fear, intimidation, mounting legal costs, or simple exhaustion and abandons the criticism. In some cases, repeated frivolous litigation against a defendant may raise the cost of directors and officers liability insurance for that party, interfering with an organization's ability to operate. A SLAPP may also intimidate others from participating in the debate. A SLAPP is often preceded by a legal threat. SLAPPs bring about freedom of speech concerns due to their chilling effect and are often difficult to filter out and penalize because the plaintiffs attempt to obfuscate their intent to censor, intimidate, or silence their critics.
To protect freedom of speech, some jurisdictions have passed anti-SLAPP laws (often called SLAPP-back laws). These laws often function by allowing a defendant to file a motion to strike and/or dismiss on the grounds that the case involves protected speech on a matter of public concern. The plaintiff then bears the burden of showing a probability that they will prevail. If the plaintiffs fail to meet their burden their claim is dismissed and the plaintiffs may be required to pay a penalty for bringing the case.
Anti-SLAPP laws sometimes come under criticism from those who believe that there should not be barriers to the right to petition for those who sincerely believe they have been wronged, regardless of ulterior motives. Hence, the difficulty in drafting SLAPP legislation, and in applying it, is to craft an approach which affords an early termination to invalid, abusive suits, without denying a legitimate day in court to valid good faith claims. Anti-SLAPP laws are generally considered to have a favorable effect, and many lawyers have fought to enact stronger laws protecting against SLAPPs.
SLAPP is a form of strategic litigation or impact litigation. SLAPPs take various forms. The most common used to be a civil suit for defamation, which in the English common law tradition was a tort. The common law of libel dates to the early 17th century and, unlike most English law, is reverse onus, meaning that once someone alleges a statement is libelous, the burden is on the defendant to prove that it is not. In England and Wales, the Defamation Act 2013 removed most of the uses of defamation as a SLAPP by requiring the proof of special damage. Various abuses of this law including political libel (criticism of the political actions or views of others) have ceased to exist in most places, but persist in some jurisdictions (notably British Columbia and Ontario) where political views can be held as defamatory.
A common feature of SLAPPs is forum shopping, wherein plaintiffs find courts that are more favourable towards the claims to be brought than the court in which the defendant (or sometimes plaintiffs) live.
Other widely mentioned elements of a SLAPP are the actual effectiveness at silencing critics, the timing of the suit, inclusion of extra or spurious defendants (such as relatives or hosts of legitimate defendants), inclusion of plaintiffs with no real claim (such as corporations that are affiliated with legitimate plaintiffs), making claims that are very difficult to disprove or rely on no written record, ambiguous or deliberately mangled wording that lets plaintiffs make spurious allegations without fear of perjury, refusal to consider any settlement (or none other than cash), characterization of all offers to settle as insincere, extensive and unnecessary demands for discovery, attempts to identify anonymous or pseudonymous critics, appeals on minor points of law, and demands for broad rulings when appeal is accepted on such minor points of law. In some instances it is clear that plaintiffs are attempting to drain defendants of their financial resources by making the lawsuit as costly as possible, and in these cases the plaintiff's motive may not be legal victory, but merely to waste the defendant's time and money.
The acronym was coined in the 1980s by University of Denver professors Penelope Canan and George W. Pring. The term was originally defined as "a lawsuit involving communications made to influence a governmental action or outcome, which resulted in a civil complaint or counterclaim filed against nongovernment individuals or organizations on a substantive issue of some public interest or social significance." The concept's originators later dropped the notion that government contact had to be about a public issue to be protected by the right to petition the government, as provided in the First Amendment. It has since been defined less broadly by some states, and more broadly in one state (California) where it includes suits about speech on any public issue.
The original conceptualization proffered by Canan and Pring emphasized the right to petition as protected in the United States under the US Constitution's specific protection in the First Amendment's fifth clause. It is still definitional: SLAPPs are civil lawsuits filed against those who have communicated to government officialdom (in its entire constitutional apparatus). The right to petition, granted by Edgar the Peaceful, King of England in the 10th century, antedates Magna Carta in terms of its significance in the development of democratic institutions. As currently conceived, the right claims that democracy cannot properly function in the presence of barriers between the governed and the governing.
New York Supreme Court Judge J. Nicholas Colabella said in reference to SLAPPs: "Short of a gun to the head, a greater threat to First Amendment expression can scarcely be imagined." In the United States a number of jurisdictions have made such suits illegal, however the conditions that a defendant must satisfy for a dismissal of the suit vary from state to state. In some states, such as California, defendants may be entitled to counter-sue SLAPP plaintiffs under some circumstances. This is commonly referred to as SLAPPback.
In the Australian Capital Territory, the Protection of Public Participation Act 2008 (ACT) protects conduct intended to influence public opinion or promote or further action in relation to an issue of public interest. A party starting or maintaining a proceeding against a defendant for an improper purpose may be ordered to pay a financial penalty to the Territory.
Some political libel and forum shopping incidents, both relatively uncommon in Canada, have been called SLAPPs, because such suits load defendants with costs of responding in unfamiliar jurisdictions or at times (typically elections) when they are extremely busy and short of funds. Both types of suit are unusual in Canada, so there is little academic concern or examination of whether political subject matter or remote forums are a clear indicator of SLAPP.
Canada's three most populous provinces (Quebec, British Columbia, and Ontario) have enacted anti-SLAPP legislation.
One of the first cases in Canada to be explicitly ruled a SLAPP was Fraser v. Saanich (see  B.C.J. No. 3100 (B.C. S.C.)) (QL), where the British Columbia Supreme Court struck out the claim of a hospital director against the District of Saanich, holding that it was a meritless action designed to silence or intimidate the residents who were opposed to the plaintiff's plan to redevelop the hospital facilities.
Following the decision in Fraser v. Saanich, the Protection of Public Participation Act (PPPA) went into effect in British Columbia in April 2001. The legislation was repealed in August 2001. There was extensive debate on its merits and the necessity of having hard criteria for judges and whether this tended to reduce or increase process abuse. The debate was largely formed by the first case to discuss and apply the PPPA, Home Equity Development v. Crow. The defendants' application to dismiss the action against them was dismissed. The defendants failed to meet the burden of proof required by the PPPA, that the plaintiffs had no reasonable prospect of success. While it was not the subject of the case, some felt that the plaintiffs did not bring their action for an improper purpose, and the suit did not inhibit the defendants in their public criticism of the particular project, and that the Act was, therefore, ineffective in this case.
Since the repeal, BC activists especially the BCCLA have argued repeatedly for a broad understanding of SLAPP and a broad interpretation of judicial powers especially in intervener applications in BC and other common law jurisdictions and when arguing for new legislation to prevent SLAPPs. The activist literature contains extensive research on particular cases and criteria. The West Coast Environmental Law organization agrees and generally considers BC to lag other jurisdictions.
In March 2019, the legislature voted unanimously to pass another anti-SLAPP bill, the Protection of Public Participation Act.
A private member's bill introduced in 2001 by Graham Steele (NDP, Halifax Fairview) proposed a "Protection of Public Participation Act" to dismiss proceedings or claims brought or maintained for an improper purpose, awarding punitive or exemplary damages (effectively, a "SLAPP back") and protection from liability for communication or conduct which constitutes public participation. The bill did not progress beyond first reading.
In Ontario, the decision in Daishowa v. Friends of the Lubicon  O.J. No. 3855 Ont. Ct. Gen. Div. (QL) was instructive on SLAPPs. A motion brought by the corporate plaintiff Daishowa to impose conditions on the defendant Friends of the Lubicon Indian Band that they would not represent Daishowa's action as a SLAPP was dismissed.
By 2010, the Ontario Attorney-General had issued a major report which identified SLAPP as a major problem but initially little to nothing was done.
In June 2013, the Attorney General introduced legislation to implement the recommendations of the report. The bill proposed a mechanism for an order to dismiss strategic lawsuits which attack free expression on matters of public interest, with full costs (but not punitive damages) and on a relatively short timeframe, if the underlying claims had no reasonable prospect of success.
The bill enjoyed support from a wide range of groups including municipalities, the Canadian Environmental Law Association, EcoJustice, Environmental Defence, Ontario Clean Air Alliance, Ontario Nature, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Citizens Environment Alliance of Southwestern Ontario, The Council of Canadians, CPAWS Wildlands League, Sierra Club Ontario, Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario and Greenpeace Canada. The Ontario Civil Liberties Association called upon the Attorney General to go even further, claiming Bill 83 did not correct fundamental flaws with Ontario's defamation law which impose a one-sided burden of proof to force defendants to disprove falsity, malice, and damage within a very limited framework where "truth", "privilege", "fair comment", and "responsible reporting" are their only recognised defences.
The legislation was re-introduced following the 2014 Ontario election as Bill 52, and on 3 November 2015, Ontario enacted it as the Protection of Public Participation Act, 2015.
Québec's then Justice Minister, Jacques Dupuis, proposed an anti-SLAPP bill on 13 June 2008. The bill was adopted by the National Assembly of Quebec on 3 June 2009. Quebec's amended Code of Civil Procedure was the first anti-SLAPP mechanism in force in Canada.
Prior to Ontario enacting its own Anti-SLAPP law the bill was invoked there (and then Supreme Court of Canada docket 33819). In the case of Les Éditions Écosociété Inc., Alain Deneault, Delphine Abadie and William Sacher vs. Banro Inc., in which the publisher Écosociété pleaded (supported by the BCCLA) that it should not face Ontario liability for a publication in Quebec, as the suit was a SLAPP and the Quebec law explicitly provided to dismiss these. The court denied the request, ruling it had jurisdiction. A separate 2011 decision in Quebec Superior Court had ruled that Barrick Gold had to pay $143,000 to the book's three authors and publisher, Les Éditions Écosociété Inc., to prepare their defence in a "seemingly abusive" strategic lawsuit against public participation. Despite the Québec ruling, a book Noir Canada documenting the relationship between Canadian mining corporations, armed conflict and political actors in Africa was never published as part of a settlement which, according to the authors, was only made for the sole purpose of resolving the three-and-a-half-year legal battle.
The Quebec law is substantially different in structure than that of California or other jurisdictions, however, as Quebec's Constitution generally subordinates itself to international law, and as such the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights applies. That treaty only permits liability for arbitrary and unlawful speech. The ICCPR has also been cited, in the BC case Crookes v. Newton, as the standard for balancing free speech versus reputation rights. The Supreme Court of Canada in October 2011, ruling in that case, neither reiterated nor rescinded that standard.
On 25 November 2020, the European Parliament passed a resolution expressed "its continued deep concern about the state of media freedom within the EU in the context of the abuses and attacks still being perpetrated against journalists and media workers in some Member States because of their work" and called on the European Commission to "establish minimum standards against SLAPP practices across the EU". In 2021 the European Union was considering adopting an anti-SLAPP directive to protect the freedom of speech of European citizens.
Thirty one states, the District of Columbia, and Guam have enacted statutory protections against SLAPPs. These states are Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. In Colorado and West Virginia, the courts have adopted protections against SLAPPs. These laws vary dramatically in scope and level of protection, and the remaining states lack specific protections.
There is no federal anti-SLAPP law, but legislation for one has been previously introduced, such as the SPEAK FREE Act of 2015. The extent to which state laws apply in federal courts is unclear, and the circuits are split on the question. The First, Fifth and Ninth circuits have allowed litigants from Maine, Louisiana and California, respectively, to use their state's special motion in federal district courts in diversity actions. The D.C. Circuit has held the reverse for D.C. litigants.
It has been argued that the lack of uniform protection against SLAPPs has encouraged forum shopping; proponents of federal legislation have argued that the uncertainty about one's level of protection has likely magnified the chilling effect of SLAPPs.
In December 2009, Rep. Steve Cohen (D–Tennessee) introduced the Citizen Participation Act in the U.S. House. This marks the first time the Congress has considered federal anti-SLAPP legislation, though the Congress enacted the SPEECH Act on the closely related issue of libel tourism. Like many state anti-SLAPP laws, H.R. 4364 would allow the defendant of a SLAPP to have the suit quickly dismissed and to recover fees and costs.
Main article: Special motion to strike
California has a unique variant of anti-SLAPP legislation. In 1992 California enacted Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16, a statute intended to frustrate SLAPPs by providing a quick and inexpensive defense. It provides for a special motion that a defendant can file at the outset of a lawsuit to strike a complaint when it arises from conduct that falls within the rights of petition or free speech. The statute expressly applies to any writing or speech made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a legislative, executive, or judicial proceeding, or any other official proceeding authorized by law, but there is no requirement that the writing or speech be promulgated directly to the official body. It also applies to speech in a public forum about an issue of public interest and to any other petition or speech conduct about an issue of public interest.
In May 2015, the Washington Supreme Court struck down the state's 2010 anti-SLAPP statute. However, in 2021, a new anti-SLAPP law was enacted.
The SLAPP penalty stands as a barrier to access to the courts by providing an early penalty to claimants who seek judicial redress. In recent years, the courts in some states have recognized that enforcement of SLAPP legislation must recognize and balance the constitutional rights of both litigants. It has been said:
Since Magna Carta, the world has recognized the importance of justice in a free society. "To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice." (Magna Carta, 1215.) This nation's founding fathers knew people would never consent to be governed and surrender their right to decide disputes by force, unless government offered a just forum for resolving those disputes.
The right to bring grievances to the courts, in good faith, is protected by state and federal constitutions in a variety of ways. In most states, the right to trial by jury in civil cases is recognized. The right to cross-examine witnesses is considered fundamental to the American judicial system. Moreover, the first amendment protects the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The "right to petition extends to all departments of the Government. The right of access to the courts is indeed but one aspect of the right of petition." Because "the right to petition is 'among the most precious of the liberties safeguarded by the Bill of Rights', ... the right of access to the courts shares this 'preferred place' in [the United States'] hierarchy of constitutional freedoms and values." This balancing question is resolved differently in different states, often with substantial difficulty.
In Palazzo v. Alves, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island stated:
By the nature of their subject matter, anti-SLAPP statutes require meticulous drafting. On the one hand, it is desirable to seek to shield citizens from improper intimidation when exercising their constitutional right to be heard with respect to issues of public concern. On the other hand, it is important that such statutes be limited in scope lest the constitutional right of access to the courts (whether by private figures, public figures, or public officials) be improperly thwarted. There is a genuine double-edged challenge to those who legislate in this area.
The most challenging balancing problem arises in application to SLAPP claims which do not sound (give rise to a claim) in tort. The common law and constitutional law have developed in the United States to create a high substantive burden to tort and tort-like claims which seek redress for public speech, especially public speech which addresses matters of public concern. The common law in many states requires the pleader to state accurately the content of libelous words. Constitutional law has provided substantive protection which bars recovery against a first amendment defense except upon clear and convincing evidence that there has been deliberate or reckless falsehood. For this reason, ferreting out the bad faith SLAPP claim at an early stage of litigation should be accomplished with relative ease. Extension of the SLAPP penalties to factually complex cases, where the substantive standard of proof at common law is lower presents special challenges.
A Minnesota Supreme Court case, Middle-Snake-Tamarac Rivers Watershed Dist. v. Stengrim, 784 N.W.2d 834 (Minn. 2010) establishes a two-step process to determine whether SLAPP procedure should be applied. The decision arises in the context of an effort to enforce a settlement agreement between a local government and an opponent of a flood control project. The landowner had accepted a significant monetary settlement in settlement of his opposition to land acquisition. The landowner agreed as part of the settlement to address no further challenges to the project. When the local government sued the landowner for breach of settlement, the landowner contended that enforcement of the settlement was a strategic lawsuit against public participation. The Supreme Court rejected that claim and affirmed the District Court's denial of SLAPP relief, holding "The District Court properly denied a motion to dismiss where the underlying claim involved an alleged breach of a settlement agreement that potentially limited the moving party's rights to public participation." The Supreme Court explained:
Preexisting legal relationships, such as those based on a settlement agreement where a party waives certain rights, may legitimately limit a party's public participation. It would be illogical to read sections 554.01-.05 as providing presumptive immunity to actions that a moving party may have contractually agreed to forgo or limit.
Under the Minnesota approach, as a preliminary matter, the moving party must meet the burden of showing that the circumstances which bring the case within the purview of SLAPP protection exists. Until that has been accomplished, no clear and convincing burden has been shifted to the responding party.
In 2016, the real-estate investment company Pro Kapital Ltd sued urbanist Teele Pehk who expressed her opinion about the company's development plans in the Kalasadam area of Tallinn, Estonia. The accusations were based on an interview given for the article "The battle for the Estonian coastline", published by the monthly newspaper The Baltic Times. Initially, instead of clarifying the questionable quotes in the article with the Baltic Times' editors, Pro Kapital sent a legal demand to Pehk demanding that she publish a pre-written explanation and pay €500 to cover their legal advice expenses. Pehk provided proof to the lawyer that she had not lied to the journalist of The Baltic Times, and the newspaper published a clarification online that Pehk's words were misinterpreted. Few months later Pro Kapital sued Pehk for damaging their reputation by spreading lies about the detailed plan of the Kalasadam area. Teele Pehk had been involved with the detailed plan of Kalasadam since 2011, as a member of the neighbourhood association Telliskivi selts and caretaker of the Kalarand beach, situated on the edge of the Kalasadam area.
Half a year into the court case, Pro Kapital began negotiations and settled with a compromise before the court hearing. Pro Kapital paid for Pehk's legal costs and both parties agreed not to disparage each other in the future. Teele Pehk is still active in Tallinn urban development and continues to spread the word about SLAPP suits.
This case took place at the end of the 12-year process of planning the Kalasadam area, which over the years had witnessed exceptionally high public interest regarding the planned residential development and most importantly, the public use of the seaside and the beach. The planning system in Estonia allows anyone to express their opinion, present suggestions or objections to any detailed plan. Many Estonian civic organisations were raising concerned voices about the case and the Chancellor for Justice of Estonia condemned that practice many times in public appearances.
In September 2017, a naturopath in Arizona named Colleen Huber filed a defamation lawsuit, preceded by two cease and desist letters, against Britt Marie Hermes, a naturopathy whistleblower. The lawsuit was filed for Hermes' blog post criticizing Huber for using naturopathic remedies to treat cancer and speculating that Hermes' name was being used without her permission in several registered domain names owned by Huber. The lawsuit was filed in Kiel, Germany where Hermes was residing to pursue her PhD in evolutionary genomics. Jann Bellamy of Science-Based Medicine speculates that this is "due to good old forum shopping for a more plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction" as there are no protections against SLAPP lawsuits in Germany. Britt Hermes is a notable scientific skeptic and the organization Australian Skeptics set up a fund to help with legal costs on the case. In an interview at CSICon 2019, Britt Hermes told Susan Gerbic that she had won her case on 24 May 2019. According to Britt Hermes, "the court ruled that my post is protected speech under Article 5 (1) of the German constitution".
In 2020, Karan Bajaj, the founder of WhiteHat Jr., now owned by Byju's, filed a 2.6 million dollar lawsuit against Pradeep Poonia, an engineer who publicly accused the company of having a toxic work environment and unethical business practices. The Delhi High Court issued an interim order requiring Poonia to remove certain tweets from his account. In 2021, Bajaj rescinded the lawsuit.
During 2016, Amir Bramly, who at the time was being investigated and subsequently indicted for an alleged Ponzi scheme, sued for libel Tomer Ganon, a Calcalist reporter, privately for ₪1 million in damages, due to a news item linking him to Bar Refaeli. In addition Bramly sued Channel-2 News and its reporters and managers for ₪5 million in damages due to an alleged libel in an in-depth TV news item and interview with the court appointed liquidator of his companies, and has threatened to sue additional bodies. The sued individuals and bodies have claimed that these are SLAPP actions.
In 2006, Oricon Inc., Japan's music chart provider, sued freelance journalist Hiro Ugaya due to his suggesting in an article for business and culture magazine Cyzothat the company was fiddling its statistics to benefit certain management companies and labels, specifically Johnny and Associates. The company sought ¥50 million and apology from him. He found allies in the magazine's editor-in-chief Tadashi Ibi, lawyer Kentaro Shirosaki, and Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF).
He was found guilty in 2008 by the Tokyo District Court and ordered to pay one million yen, but he appealed and won. Oricon did not appeal later. His 33-month struggle against Oricon and his research on SLAPPs through his self-expense trip in the United States was featured on the TBS program JNN Reportage, titled as "Legal Intimidation Against Free Speech: What is SLAPP?"
RSF expressed its support to the journalist and was relieved on the abandonment of the suit.
In 2018, Lovdata, a foundation that publishes judicial information, sued two people amongst the volunteers in the rettspraksis.no project. Up until 2008, Lovdata was considered a government agency and had unlimited access to the supreme court servers. Based on this access, Lovdata has established a de facto monopoly on Norwegian supreme court rulings. When rettspraksis.no published supreme court decisions, Lovdata sued Håkon Wium Lie and Fredrik Ljone, two of the volunteers. Although court decisions are not protected by copyright in Norway, Lovdata claimed that rettspraksis.no had used advanced crawlers to copy Lovdata's database. In less than 24 hours, Lovdata was able to close the rettspraksis.no site and the judge also ordered the volunteers to pay Lovdata's legal fees. Also, rettspraksis.no was not allowed to appear in court to explain that their source for the legal decision is a CD deposited in the National Library by Lovdata itself. In the court of appeals, Lovdata admitted that it is legal to copy court decisions from an old CD-ROM, but are still pressing charges. 
In the late 1990s, many SLAPP cases against independent and pro-opposition media ensued after adoption of the infamous media law, proposed by then minister of information, Aleksandar Vučić. The main characteristic of these cases were quick trials and extremely high fines, most of which were unaffordable for journalists and their media houses. While SLAPP cases became, more or less, rare after the Overthrow of Slobodan Milošević, they gradually reappeared in the late 2010s, and especially in the early 2020s, during SNS-led cabinets. Notably, Aleksandar Vučić is current president of Serbia, the most influential figure of the regime, and he is often accused of suppression of media freedoms.
A 2021 libel action brought against the publisher HarperCollins and the author and journalist Catherine Belton over the latter's book Putin's People was described by former Conservative cabinet minister David Davis as a SLAPP. Despite winning the legal case brought by several Russian oligarchs, including Roman Abramovich, Belton was left facing legal costs of £1.5 million. UK Government justice minister James Cartlidge said, "the Ministry of Justice is monitoring SLAPP threats against journalists and announced that the UK will be a member of the Council of Europe’s inaugural working group on SLAPPs with an anti-SLAPP draft recommendation for member states due in December 2023. I will be giving SLAPPs in UK courts urgent consideration. I want to make it clear that the Government are committed to a robust defence of transparency and freedom of speech. We will not tolerate anything that risks tarnishing the integrity of our judicial and legal profession".
Ministers later said that they would reform the legal system to prevent "intimidation lawsuits"; amendments to this effect were proposed for an anti-corruption economic crime bill before Parliament in March 2022.
The Legislature finds and declares that it is in the public interest to encourage continued participation in matters of public significance, and that this participation should not be chilled through abuse of the judicial process.
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Strategic lawsuit against public participation