SLAPPs Filed to Silence Individuals Fighting Government Abuse and Corruption

Government Abuse SLAPPs

  • In Tennessee, the Clarksville Property Rights Coalition (CPRC), a grassroots group formed to fight the eminent domain abuse, ran an ad in the local newspaper criticizing elected officials and developers for backing a redevelopment plan including eminent domain. The ad said, in part, “This Redevelopment Plan is of the developers, by the developers, and for the developers.” In March of 2009, the circuit court vindicated the right to protest government abuse by dismissing the libel and invasion of privacy claims against CPRC, holding, “Debate on public issues shall be uninhibited [and] wide open. . . .  Accusing a public official or public figure of using their political influence to obtain a benefit for others or themselves or favoring their supporters is not defamation.” And, as the speech at issue involved “public debate, public issues and public persons,” the plaintiff’s allegations were insufficient to support a claim of invasion of privacy as a matter of law. Although Tennessee has an anti-SLAPP statute, it only protects statements made to a government body. But under the proposed federal legislation, the CPRC would also have been able to recover attorney’s fees and damages incurred in defending against the SLAPP. See Swift v. Clarksville Property Rights Coalition, No. MC CC CV OD- 08529 (2009).
  • In November of 2008, a Texas developer sued the author of a book about an eminent domain development agreement the developer had signed. The suit, which named the author, the book’s publisher, a newspaper that reviewed the book and Law Professor Richard Epstein, who wrote the book’s introduction, seeks monetary damages and a permanent injunction on further printing or distribution of the book. Epstein was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction in March 2009, and in June of 2009, the remaining defendants asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. The Institute for Justice is defense counsel in the suit, which is actually the second suit brought by the developer in response to statements made about the development deal. In 2004, he sued the owners of two companies affected by the development deal who complained against his actions. That lawsuit settled in January of 2009, after nearly five years of litigation, under undisclosed conditions. See Royall v. Wright Gore, Jr., et. al., No. 29996 (2009); Royall v. Main, et. al., No. DC-08-13480-B (2009).
  • In 1992, deputy sheriff Gary Spencer shot and killed a citizen during execution of a search warrant in California. Following an investigation by the district attorney, the deputy was exonerated. However, the district attorney’s public report of the investigation questioned the veracity of the affidavit supporting the search warrant, suggesting that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was “motivated, at least in part, by a desire to seize and forfeit the ranch for the government…. Based in part upon the possibility of forfeiture, Spencer obtained a search warrant that was not supported by probable cause.” Spencer sued the district attorney for slander, who brought an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss the case. The trial court denied the motion, but the court of appeals reversed, holding that the state’s anti-SLAPP statute applies to public employees who issue reports and comment on issues of public interest relating to their official duties. Bradbury v. Superior Court, 49 Cal.App.4th 1108 (1996).
  • In Washington in 1986, police entered the homes of two Roma (Gypsy) families on a faulty warrant and searched family members – including a baby – who weren’t the subjects of the warrant. The families sought $59 million in damages for the raid, and the city and county responded by countersuing in federal court in 1989, alleging that some of the plaintiffs had violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”). The district court dismissed defendants’ RICO counterclaims two years later 1991. In 1997, 11 years after the search, the city paid $1.43 million to the families to settle the case. See Marks v. Clarke, 102 F.3d 1012 (1997).
  • Also in Washington state, a local organic farmer was arrested in a traffic stop the courts ruled was an illegal “pretext stop.” He filed a federal civil rights suit, and the city attorney’s office countersued for malicious prosecution, and for defamation based upon “outlandish statements” he made about the police officer involved in the arrest. The Ninth Circuit tossed out the city’s malicious prosecution and defamation claims, saying the city had no evidence in support, and the city council paid $20,000 in 2003 to settle the case. See Ostrander v . Madsen, 2003 U.S. App. LEXIS 1665.