Pennsylvania House Passes Anti-SLAPP Bill to Safeguard Freedom of Speech
House Bill 1466 aims to shield citizens from meritless lawsuits and uphold First Amendment rights
On October 5, the Pennsylvania House unanimously passed a bill authored by State Representative Ryan Bizzarro (D-Erie) designed to protect the people of Pennsylvania from meritless, frivolous lawsuits. House Bill 1466 aims to shield citizens from what are termed Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP). These lawsuits ostensibly attempt to silence defendants who speak out on matters of public interest by putting them through a costly and lengthy legal battle. This, according to Bizzarro, the PA House legislature, as well as 33 states and the District of Columbia (who have all been successful in moving forward anti-SLAPP legislation) is a violation of freedom of speech and the First Amendment.
A SLAPP suit may present as a civil lawsuit for defamation, nuisance, interference with contract, interference with economic advantage, or invasion of privacy, but its true purpose is to effectively discourage citizens from voicing their grievances, concerns, or disagreements with governing bodies, which is exactly what the First Amendment was designed to protect.
According to Rep. Bizzarro, "There's been a long history in Pennsylvania of people being threatened and served with lawsuits that have no legal merit and serve no purpose other than to intimidate and discourage defendants from engaging in an open debate on public issues." He continues, "We've seen historic community organizations shut their doors because they couldn't fight these unjustifiable claims. It's time we help defend our citizens and take action to protect the right to free speech in Pennsylvania."
The way this specific anti-SLAPP bill works is to create a process to quickly dismiss SLAPP lawsuits based upon "protected speech through a motion to dismiss." If the case is successfully dismissed, defendants may then recover attorney's fees, costs, and damages from the party that brought about the SLAPP suit (as part of the "SLAPP Back" provision within the bill).
The bill, having successfully and unanimously passed through the House, now moves to the State Senate for vote. Our own State Senator Dan Laughlin will be among those voting on the upcoming bill in the Senate, and as he is currently in the midst of a defamation lawsuit against this publication and contributor Jim Wertz, his vote on the matter will undoubtedly attract attention.
Bizzarro comments, "Individuals and organizations shouldn't have to fear being slapped with a lawsuit simply because they voiced their opinions on a certain issue. Our bill will give these defendants the incentive and tools they need to fight these baseless lawsuits and continue their good work."
House Bill 1466 was co-sponsored by Reps. Melissa Cerrato (D-Montgomery), Liz Hanbidge (D-Montgomery), Joe Hohenstein (D-Phila.), Tarik Khan (D-Phila.), Patrick Gallagher (D-Phila.), Lisa Borowski (D-Delaware) and Tim Brennan (D-Bucks).