By: Garen Meguerian, Esq.
Suffering animals are often referred to as the “voiceless” and as advocates you’ve been encouraged to “be their voice”. Your opponents have devised a powerful tool designed to strip you of your voice and make sure that you cannot help the voiceless animals, including those suffering in Pennsylvania’s puppy mills.
That powerful tool is known as the SLAPP lawsuit, a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. In a SLAPP lawsuit people with money and power use their superior resources and access to the courts to punish, silence, intimidate and retaliate against their vocal critics.
Have you wondered why no undercover puppy mill investigations seem to be in the news lately? Does Pennsylvania no longer have a puppy mill problem, or, have advocates and investigators been cowed into silence by lawsuits? Some of you still working in the trenches of animal welfare advocacy know the answers to these questions.
As an attorney who represents advocates and consumers, I am writing with an urgent plea that you support an important bill that will help restore the advocates’ voice.
There is no greater threat to advocacy or the voice of the ordinary citizen in the United States of America than the SLAPP suit.
As an advocate, your voice is your most precious resource, and SLAPP suits target your voice by causing you to pay to defend your words.
What if it someone passed a law that fined you $50 each time someone disagreed with you on any given topic? What about $500? $50,000? $500,000? That would, of course, be outrageous. Such an act would be held unconstitutional; after all, in the United States of America, the Constitution protects our fundamental right to speech.
Defending your right to free speech costs time and money, however, and the Constitution does not promise or guarantee that your right to speech will be protected for free; which makes free speech very costly indeed. So, in effect, you are fined each time you are sued, even if the lawsuit is baseless.
Sadly, the $500,000 figure above is no exaggeration. Even a case dismissed at its earliest stages, will cost an advocate upwards of $50,000 in defense fees. Cases that survive or linger for years can cost exponentially more to defend.
If you think this cannot happen to you, think again.
Animal welfare advocates have been particularly vulnerable targets to SLAPP suits throughout the country. Most animal welfare advocates do not have the resources to defend themselves. So, typically, for the cost of hiring an attorney to draft a complaint (with serious sounding charges including: defamation; slander; libel; false light; conspiracy; business disparagement; and, infliction of emotional distress), an ordinary citizen can quickly be intimidated into silence. It is much cheaper to agree to remain silent than to be subjected to the trials and tribulations of a lawsuit.
Ordinary Pennsylvanians have been especially vulnerable to SLAPP lawsuits, particularly those advocating for the welfare of animals. Unfortunately, unlike many other states, Pennsylvania does not offer protections for those facing SLAPP suits.
Senator Larry Farnese (D-Philadelphia) is trying to change that fact and is working to even the playing field in Pennsylvania. He has introduced Senate Bill 1095 that would make the filing of SLAPP suits more difficult by giving courts an opportunity to dismiss these suits before advocates and ordinary citizens are forced to incur tens of thousands of dollars in defense fees. The bill also provides for the reimbursement of counsel fees for those facing SLAPP lawsuits. Passage of this legislation can diffuse the greatest threat to advocacy by, finally, raising the cost associated with the filing of a SLAPP lawsuit against an advocate.
This is sensible legislation, and, Senator Farnese deserves a tremendous amount of credit for introducing the bill. This may be the most critical piece of legislation as it will restore the advocates’ voice. Unfortunately, this legislation is not getting the attention it deserves!
Senate Bill 1095 needs your help – actually, it needs more co-sponsors – and that’s where your help is needed. Pick up the phone today and contact your state Senator to ask that they co-sponsor and vote YES on Senate Bill 1095 because it’s important to the dogs and to you – the voting public. Don’t know who or how to contact your State Senator? Go here: http://www.legis.state.pa.us/