When the Empire SLAPPs Back

“Short of a gun to the head, a greater threat to First Amendment expression can scarcely be imagined”

-Nicholas Colabella J. of the New York Supreme Court, in Gordon v Marrone.

The above statement vividly describes what has come to be called a SLAPP suit – Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. The term was coined by University of Denver Professors Penelope Canan and George Pring in their book ‘SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out’.[1] SLAPPs are generally characterized by deep-pocketed individuals or entities pursuing litigation as a way of intimidating or silencing their critics.

The suit likely may have no merit, but the objective is primarily to threaten or coerce critics into silence, or in the alternative, impose prohibitive costs on criticism. SLAPPs also have the effect of suppressing reportage about initial claims.  Even if defendants win a lawsuit on merits, it would be at an immense cost in terms of resources. This experience is likely to deter them, and others from speaking out in the future. Faced with an uncertain legal process, defendants are also likely to seek settlement. While this allows them to avoid an expensive process, it usually entails them having to abandon their opposition as well.  By in effect chilling citizen participation in government, SLAPP suits strike at the heart of participatory democracy.

SLAPPs have also come to be employed in India, in a number of instances. These are usually large corporates, powerful individuals, and even private universities, dragging media houses and journalists, or academics to Court for unfavorable reportage. Recent instances indicate that SLAPPs can also be employed by influential people accused of sexual assault or harassment. The aim appears to be to suppress media coverage, and deter victims from publically speaking out.

Defamation suits tend to be the weapon of choice for SLAPPs. In India, where defamation can also be a criminal offence, this can be a particularly effective strategy, especially since it may be pursued concurrently with a civil claim. Another tactic to make the process more punitive, is to file the suit in a remote, inconvenient location where the offending publication may have been made available. In the context of the internet, this could theoretically be anywhere.

There have not been many instances where the judiciary have demonstrated awareness of this phenomenon. In Crop Care Federation of India v. Rajasthan Patrika, reports had been published in the Rajasthan Patrika about the harmful effects of pesticides. Crop Care Federation of India, an industry body of pesticide manufactures, sued the newspaper and its employees for allegedly defaming its members. In response, the defendant filed an application for the rejection of plaint, under Order 7 Rule 11 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908. It was argued that the plaintiff was an association of manufacturers, and not a determinate body, which was a necessary requirement to constitute a cause of action in a defamation suit. Justice Ravindra Bhat dismissed the suit on the above ground but also explicitly called out the petitioner’s suit as a SLAPP, with a reference to Justice Nicholas Colabella’s dictum in Gordon v. Marrone. He went on to note that, “in such instances the plaintiff’s goals are accomplished if the defendant succumbs to fear, intimidation, mounting legal costs or simple exhaustion and abandons the criticism. A SLAPP may also intimidate others from participating in the debate.”

Several jurisdictions have enacted ‘anti-SLAPP’ legislations in an attempt to protect defendants from such practices. Broadly, such legislations provide the defendant an opportunity to seek dismissal of the suit early in the proceedings. In most anti-SLAPP statutes in the United States, if the defendant demonstrates that the statements were within the exercise of free speech, and on matters of legitimate public interest, the burden shifts onto the plaintiff to establish a probability of success of their claims. Failing to do so would lead to a dismissal, with the petitioner having to compensate the defendant’s legal costs. Typically, the discovery process is halted while the motion is being adjudicated upon. This further mitigates the financial toll that the proceedings might otherwise take.

In a similar vein, one of the recommendations in India has been to introduce procedure into Order 7 Rule 11 that allows suits that bear the mark of a SLAPP to be summarily dismissed. Broader reforms to the law of defamation may also limit the impact of SLAPPs. It has been proposed that Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which criminalize defamation, should be repealed. It is widely held that, despite the Supreme Court’s contrary view, the imposition of penal consequences for defamation runs counter to the free speech ideals enshrined within our Constitution. There are also suggestions to codify civil defamation, with higher thresholds for statements regarding public officials or public figures, as well as a stricter requirement of demonstrating harm. There are also proposals to allow for corrections and apologies to be offered as remedy, and for damages designed to be primarily restorative, and not punitive.

According to Pring and Canan, SLAPPs are a way for petitioners to transform a “a public, political controversy into a private, legalistic one.”[2] Defamation, and SLAPP suits in general, have become a tool to deter public scrutiny and criticism of those in power. Drawing reasonable inferences from fact is essential to the functioning of the press, and the internet has provided citizens an avenue to express their opinions and grievances. Both are likely to limit the legitimate exercise of their free speech if they run the risk of being dragged to court to mount a legal defense for their claims. Our legal framework seeks to deliver justice to all, but must also be cognizant of how it may be subverted towards nefarious ends.

[1] Penelope Canan and George Pring, SLAPPs : Getting Sued for Speaking Out (Temple University Press, 1996).

[2] Id., at 10.

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