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Editorial: Bill would help protect free speech

Saturday, May 24, 2014
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Rarely does a piece of legislation in Albany directly affect all New Yorkers and their ability to exercise their fundamental, constitutional right of free speech.

This one does.

And it’s vital that our representatives in Albany — particularly Sens. Hugh Farley and Kathy Marchione — rally behind this bill so that it passes during this legislative session.

Making its way through the Senate committee review process next week is a bill that would severely restrict the government’s ability to discourage public participation through lawsuits.

You would think that such a law wouldn’t be needed 225 years after American citizens were granted their First Amendment right to free speech (along with assembly, petition and press). But you would be wrong.

Government routinely files lawsuits against the very people who put them into office, in order to quell protests against unpopular policies or statements. The suits, known as SLAPP suits (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), are frivolous legal actions brought by government bodies against citizens when the government doesn’t like what those people have to say.

Some of these suits seek millions of dollars, enough to make even the most passionate protesters think twice about opening their mouths in public. About 90 percent of such suits target individuals. But SLAPP suits also have been used against citizens groups, journalists and whistleblowers.

The state enacted modest SLAPP protection in 1992. But the law is too weak and narrow to be effective, in that it only applies to punitive lawsuits brought against individuals in cases of permit applications, such as zoning variances.

Because of its very limited scope, the current law does little to discourage governments from suing their citizens.

The 2014 version of the SLAPP bill (A.856/S.7280) greatly expands the law’s protections to “any communication in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public concern.”

It also puts some bite into the toothless legislation by allowing judges to award court costs and attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs in cases found to be totally without merit. Courts also would get the power to dismiss SLAPP suits at the early stages if they deem them frivolous. The law would protect government bodies from speech that clearly is libelous or slanderous.

The new bill, which has overwhelmingly passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly twice in the past, has been stalled in the Republican-led Senate. But it still has life. The bill has the backing of the New York News Publishers Association and other media organizations throughout the state.

We urge our local state legislators, particularly Sens. Farley and Marchione, to carry the flag for this bill, and for legislators from both parties to support its passage.

It’s your First Amendment rights that are at stake. If you're at all concerned about losing them to litigation, contact those representatives and let them know what you think.

Sen. Hugh T. Farley: (518) 455-2181; Farley@nysenate.gov.

Sen. Kathleen A. Marchione: (518)

455-2381; marchione@nysenate.gov.

 

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