Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 12, 2009

Forum: A SLAPP to freedom of speech

By AMY KERR HARDIN

What is the net effect of a so-called "SLAPP" (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suit? These lawsuits are considered "frivolous," but to their victims they are anything but. The sole purpose of a SLAPP suit is to initimidate and silence individuals by threatening them with financial ruin.

Most commonly, activists are the target, but in Acme Township, it was elected public servants. The ongoing story about the Acme Township officials who were "SLAPPed" has been in the news for more than four years, having gained regional and national attention.

But we have yet to consider the effect it has had on our community and the region at large. From Acme, the epicenter, the reverberations start with those fortunate officials who, thankfully, were spared from being sued. They too, personally experienced the fear, the worry and the sleepless nights. It's like being made to stand next to the person being executed.

The ripples then extend out to surrounding communities. SLAPP suits have a dampening effect on public service in general. Our elected and appointed officials clearly are not in it for the paycheck. Small municipalities such as Acme rely solely on the dedication and generosity of their public servants.

Another important concern in our community is the chilling effect predatory litigation has on the will of citizens to exercise their right to free speech. Even though the frivolous suits were filed against Acme officials, other community members are experiencing a reluctance to speak freely and openly.

They are afraid of their telephones and computers. They are afraid of their own opinions, and sadly often leave them unexpressed. We are appalled when this kind of thing happens in another country. It's so draconian. Yet here it is in northern Michigan, alive and well, where the erosion of free speech sadly relies on the tacit approval gained through the silence of those with the most to lose. Exactly the result intended by those who pursue this type of litigation as a tool for advancing their agenda.

We are now at a point where we can ask ourselves, "What can we do?" One answer is obvious. We can support Rep. Kevin Elsenheimer, R-Kewadin, who represents Michigan's 105th state House district, in his effort to pass an important law designed to protect the ability of public servants and ordinary citizens to participate in the democratic process.

We can also try to heal our community by not being afraid anymore, and by insisting that those who would wish to "forgive and forget" must first actively work to protect our rights, or they are not really "forgiving" at all. They are just surrendering to the fear.

The issue has never been about zoning laws, or about developer's rights. It's simply about everyone's First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

About the author: Amy Kerr Hardin, a 27-year Acme Township resident, is campaign manager for Acme Citizens for Responsible Growth and is also engaged in promoting anti-SLAPP suit legislation. Her husband Ronald is an Acme Township trustee and also serves on the planning commission; he was the subject of a SLAPP suit.

About the forum: The forum is a periodic column of opinion written by Record-Eagle readers in their areas of interest or expertise. Submissions of 500 words or less may be made by e-mailing letters@record-eagle.com. Please include biographical information and a photo.