Akron Beacon Journal: Protect free speech from lawsuits without merit

By The Akron Beacon Journal

State Sen. Matt Huffman recently reminded that the courts are “supposed to be a dispute resolution system.” The Lima Republican then added, according to the Gongwer News Service, “not a weapon to be used by people to punish somebody else.” That thinking drives Senate Bill 206, a proposal to protect Ohioans from frivolous lawsuits that chill their right to free speech.

The legislation should attract broad bipartisan support at the Statehouse, serving the interests of conservatives and liberals. With enactment, Ohio would join 28 other states in countering meritless claims that aim simply to stop people from speaking up.

These wasteful filings have a name, “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” The anti-SLAPP bill would provide those sued for expressing opinions about matters of public interest with an expedited process, easing the length and cost of litigation. Rather than consuming a year or more, cases, in most instances, would be resolved in nine months or less.

Judges would be in position to dismiss lawsuits filed against those engaged in “protected communication” through a special motion to strike. Discovery would be limited. If the motion succeeds, the defendant would recover attorney fees. If the motion fails, the plaintiff would get the same. Both sides would have full rights to mount an appeal.

Consider the view of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network. Its advocates point to episodes in which an abuser may react to critical comments, perhaps made through social media, by filing a lawsuit in retaliation. The action amounts to an attempt to reassert control, through forced contact with the abuser, an opening to coerce concessions or the prospect of a heavy financial burden.

Proponents of the legislation cite the experience of the Chagrin Valley Times. Bob Murray, the coal baron, sued the newspaper for its coverage and commentary on citizen protests against his company. The courts dismissed the lawsuit at each level, ending, finally, when the Ohio Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

A ruling by the state court of appeals actually framed the lawsuit as an argument for Ohio enacting a statute discouraging such lawsuits, or along the lines now proposed by Matt Huffman. The court saw the lawsuit for it was — a bid to still criticism.

Worth stressing is that House Bill 206 isn’t primarily about the media, or somehow an effort to loosen accountability. It goes to protecting citizens who have sharp words for public officials, and then find themselves facing a lawsuit. Or a tenant who exposes the neglect of a landlord. Or a customer highlighting the misdeeds of a business. They do not deserve the weight of a lawsuit.

Neither do those who speak anonymously. The proposal requires website operators and internet service providers to alert potential defendants of requests to share their name or IP address. All are individuals asserting their right to free speech, something Ohio courts should be better organized to protect.

By The Akron Beacon Journal

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