ONMA members: Back the ‘Ohio Citizen Participation Act’
Legislation protects First Amendment rights from frivolous lawsuits
By Dennis Hetzel, Executive Director
Several years ago, Ken Douthit, the publisher of the Chagrin Valley Times, had a big problem: He was fighting a libel suit that would cost him and his insurance company more than six figures. The giant Murray Energy Co. sued the paper over coverage, commentary and editorial cartoons following citizen protests. Murray also sued citizens who might have been bankrupted if not for their homeowners’ insurance.
The defendants won at every turn. Murray Energy kept appealing until finally they lost in efforts to get the Ohio Supreme Court to take the case. In finding for the paper, an appellate court even made the extraordinary observation that the case was a poster child for why Ohio needed what is call an “anti-SLAPP” law to dispose of such cases faster.
Douthit urged ONMA to get involved. We did. We learned that these types of lawsuits aren’t just media issues and often target everyday citizens. We built a coalition. We started meeting with legislators.
Just last week, those efforts took a huge step forward when State Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, introduced the “Ohio Citizen Participation Act.”
The bill protects all Ohioans from frivolous lawsuits that chill their First Amendment rights. Ohio would join the majority of states with similar protections. Such laws create an option for an expedited court process to dispose of such lawsuits.
“First Amendment rights are foundational to a free and functioning society,” Huffman said. “This legislation takes important steps to ensure that citizens’ speech and expression can never be quashed by legal tricks and protracted courtroom battles.”
Senate Bill 206, introduced on Oct. 3, is primarily modeled after a similar, successful law in Texas. Under the act, when someone is sued for expressing an opinion about a matter of public interest, the defendant can seek a “fast-track” process that can dispose of the case in a few months versus the cost and time of extended litigation. Both sides can appeal rulings made under the act.
“This is not a liberal or conservative issue. All citizens have a stake in the right to freely express themselves,” I said in our news release. “Sen. Huffman’s bill does not expand libel and defamation laws. You’re still accountable for what you say and publish. This law will dispose of cases that defendants would eventually win if only they had the time and money to stay the course. These are lawsuits often designed to shut people up and send a warning to others not to speak out.”
One of the groups supporting the bill is the Ohio Domestic Violence Network based on real-life experiences of domestic violence victims in Ohio.
“Court proceedings can provide a tool for abusers to exert and reestablish control over a domestic violence survivor long after the relationship has ended,” said Nancy Neylon, executive director of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network. “Abusive or retaliatory litigation includes the misuse of court proceedings by abusers to control, harass intimidate coerce and /or impoverish survivors.”
Our coalition found other examples in Ohio in which the law would apply, including people being sued over online business reviews, landlords trying to prevent tenants from posting critical comments and government officials sued for commenting on allegations that a pet store was selling “puppy mill” dogs.
The bill also would make Ohio a national leader in protecting anonymous speech on the Internet by requiring website operators and Internet service providers to inform potential defendants of requests to “out them” by them by name or IP address. Citizens must receive notice of such demands and have an opportunity to contest subpoenas and other identification requests.
Anonymous speech is an important, long-held American tradition that needs protection in the online space, said Cincinnati attorney Jeffrey Nye, who has represented multiple defendants in such cases.
“James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote ‘The Federalist Papers’ under the pseudonym ‘Publius.’ Benjamin Franklin wrote as ‘Silence Dogood,’” Nye said. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that anonymous speech is not just protected, but hugely important.”
Besides the ONMA, groups supporting the Ohio Citizen Participation Act include: Ohio Domestic Violence Network, Common Cause Ohio, Motion Picture Association of America, Ohio Association of Broadcasters, Yelp Inc. and the USA Today Ohio Network. Thomas G. Haren, an attorney with Frantz Ward LLP in Cleveland, advised the group and added his individual support.
We urge our members to editorialize in favor of passage. Please thank Huffman and the other co-sponsors. Credit also goes to a Democrat, Sen. Kenny Yuko, who was the first legislator to have our model bill drafted.
- Some Promising Anti-SLAPP Legislation (Cato Institute)
- Legislation targets Ohio lawsuits deemed anti-free speech (Associated Press)
- Bill in Ohio Senate seeks to curb lawsuits attacking free speech (The Blade)
- News association lauds bill: ‘All citizens have a stake in the right to freely express themselves (Times-Gazette)