First District State Sen. Larry Farnese today introduced state legislation aimed at increasing protection against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation – or SLAPP suits.
“SLAPPs are used to deter critics from taking certain actions by forcing them to pay the high and ongoing costs of a legal defense,” Farnese’s office wrote in a press statement. This “ legislation would allow those who are wrongfully sued to more easily have their case dismissed or recover attorney fees if they win the lawsuit.”
Farnese was inspired to introduce the legislation after a series of lawsuits forced the Old City Civic Association to shut down in May after 40 years in existence. OCCA did not lose or reach an out of court settlement in any of the lawsuits, filed by developers whose projects OCCA’s committees weighed in on. But no insurer would sell OCCA a policy for director’s and officer’s insurance.
“Whether in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Erie or Gettysburg, neighborhood and community associations do good work and deserve to be protected from the unhappy few who use SLAPP suits as a form of punishment,” Farnese said in the press statement.
Pennsylvania has had an anti-SLAPP law since 2000, but its scope is narrow – it applies only to environmental law and regulatory issues. Farnese’s bill would amend existing law so that it also applies to “participation in law or regulation related to an issue in the public interest.”
It grants immunity from “civil liability” to people who “act in furtherance of the right of advocacy in issues of public interest in connection with enforcement or implementation of government action related to an issue of public interest” or who make “a communication genuinely aimed at procuring a favorable governmental action.”
Immunity isn’t granted if the statement or action is unrelated to governmental action in the public interest, if a statement is “knowingly false” or made with “reckless disregard” for whether or not it is true, or if it represents a “wrongful use” or “abuse of process.”
If the law is passed, a person or organization could make a legal claim that they cannot be sued for their actions based on this immunity. The agency or court may dismiss the case based on this immunity. If the case is not dismissed and the party sued – a civic association for example – prevails, the court may require the payment of legal fees and court costs.
So far, the bill has four co-sponsors, all Democrats, as is Farnese: District 18’s Lisa Boscola, who represents parts of Lehigh, Monroe and Northampton counties; District 45’s James Brewster, who represents parts of Allegheny and Westmoreland counties; District 7’s Vincent Hughes, who represents parts of Montgomery and Philadelphia counties and District 5’s Michael Stack, who like Farnese represents part of Philadelphia. Farnese spokesman Cameron Kline said more co-sponsors may sign on.
The bill will be assigned to committee once the senate is back in session later this month, Kline said.
The legislation would take effect 60 days after it passes. Farnese’s bill is attached to this article. Please note: The new language is located at the end of the document, and is underscored.