Slapping the SLAPPs, Pa. legislation would deter frivolous lawsuits

    A Pennsylvania Senate panel is considering a proposal supporters say would keep public groups from being intimidated out of public processes such as land-use and license decisions.

    Last year, the Old City Civic Association of Philadelphia shut down after years of involvement in zoning questions and liquor license matters. The group faced a spate of lawsuits in recent years from developers.

    All the suits were dropped before ever going before a judge, but preparing a defense was so expensive for the group’s insurer, that OCCA finally had to disband.

    “They’re trying to keep the public from becoming engaged in the public process of land use and zoning,” said Joe Schiavo, the group’s former chairman. He said there should be protections for groups that get involved when developers ask for an exception to the city’s zoning laws.

    “At that point, it’s a public process, and when you invite the public in, they shouldn’t have to wear body armor to survive the consequences of their participation,” Schiavo said.

    The lawsuits OCCA experienced have a name: they’re known as SLAPPs, or strategic lawsuits against public participation.

    Legislation sponsored by Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, would allow such lawsuits to be dismissed quickly and give defendants a way to recoup costs. Farnese’s measure is slated for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week in Philadelphia.

    Schiavo said he and others who worked with OCCA have formed a new organization with a slightly more modest mission, concentrating on green initiatives such as handing out recycling bins and monitoring dog waste.

    “You know, the smaller stuff that can be meaningful – that’s the sort of thing we’re involved in,” said Schiavo. “It feels like the thing we can do right now.”

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