Senate State Affairs Committee Passes Texas Citizen Participation Act

(Austin, Texas)—The Senate State Affairs Committee voted 7-0 today to approve SB 1565, the Texas Citizen Participation Act, legislation by Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) which protects Texans’ right to petition the government or speak out about matters of public concern.

SB 1565 protects Texans’ right to free speech and curtails frivolous abuse of our court system by reducing Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP). The legislation creates a way for people who have been subjected to SLAPP lawsuits to protect themselves from having to give in to a plaintiff who has greater resources or other power rather than spend thousands of dollars defending themselves.

“These SLAPP suits are the bully’s weapon against democracy,” said Ellis. “Across Texas and the nation, the powerful are using our courts — and the threat of high legal costs and bankruptcy — to silence critics and shield wrong-doers from scrutiny. SB 1565 evens the playing field and ensures the little guy won’t be put in the poor house for standing up for what he believes in.”

SLAPP are frivolous lawsuits used by moneyed interests to retaliate against and silence critics through costly litigation. With the rise of blogs, citizen journalism and increased public participation, more and more ordinary citizens are being targeted. SLAPP suits have been filed against citizens and organizations for simply circulating petitions, testifying at public hearings, attending rallies or demonstrations or even writing letters to the editor.

SB 1565 allow defendants in SLAPP suits to dismiss cases earlier than would otherwise be possible, thus limiting the cost and fees. Under the legislation, judges would have the power to dismiss these cases much earlier in the process and compel those behind such suits to pay legal fees and court costs.

Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have passed “Anti-SLAPP” laws.

Following are just a few Texas examples of SLAPP suits filed to intimidate citizen whistleblowers:

* Austin: A man who applied for taxicab franchise from the city of Austin was sued for defamation by his former employer for statements the man made at a city council meeting when he tried to get his own franchise. A no evidence summary judgment motion in favor of the defendant was granted but the case was appealed, causing further litigation costs for the defendant.

* Dallas: A group of homeowners who spoke out on an online forum about their homeowner’s association were sued for libel by the association.

* Dallas: A Dallas City Council member who was ousted from the board of a non-profit after he allegedly embezzled money from a non-profit sued the chairwoman of the non-profit for defamation. The plaintiff was later found guilty of embezzlement.

* Houston: When a blogger set up a site for people to comment about a local hospital, the hospital sued, seeking to reveal the identities of anonymous posters.

* Statewide: Better Business Bureaus throughout the state have been sued over their ratings system because the business owner does not like the grade that is awarded. The grade is an opinion based upon facts that are disclosed to the consuming public. There is no basis for these lawsuits; however, the BBB’s in Texas (but not in other jurisdictions where there are anti-SLAPP statutes) are forced to defend the cases through summary judgment stage, incurring the expense of discovery prior to getting the cases thrown out.

“The right to free speech is perhaps our most hallowed right,” said Ellis. “Deep-pocketed bad actors and bullies should not be able to use the courts to silence citizens.”

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