Not only does a SLAPP deter those involved from participating in political debate freely afterwards, but it also deters other citizens from speaking freely and confidently about local public issues. In Putnam County in New York, residents opposing a zoning decision were sued for conspiracy and “interference with contractual relations” by the developer which would benefit from the zoning decision. The residents agreed to cease opposition in return for the developer’s dropping the lawsuit.
Dixie Sefchek, says that when she and three other leaders of Supporters To Oppose Pollution (STOP) were SLAPPed it was “like a death threat to your organisation. People, organizations, and churches stopped giving money. Individuals resigned their memberships.” The suit was later dropped and the landfill they opposed ordered to be closed a few years later because of contamination of the groundwater.
Research by Canan and Pring in fact shows that people who know about SLAPPs are more cautious about speaking out publicly than those who have never heard of them. This intimidation of public discussion is referred to as chilling. Judges in one US court decried a SLAPP for this very reason:
[W]e shudder to think of the chill... were we to allow this lawsuit to proceed. The cost to society in terms of the threat to our liberty and freedom is beyond calculation... To prohibit robust debate on these questions would deprive society of the benefit of its collective thinking and... destroy the free exchange of ideas which is the adhesive of our democracy.
One tactic sometimes used by developers is to include John Does and Jane Does and “unnamed persons” as defendants to “spread the chill”. This is a way of claiming that there are additional ‘offending’ citizens who could not be identified before the suit was filed and leaves the way open to sue other citizens later. It puts would be activists on notice that they too could be added to the list of defendants.
SLAPPs often do not go to trial because the objective, to scare off potential opponents, can be achieved merely by the threat of the court case. Kim Goldberg points out that “company lawyers will usually go to great pains to warn activists of impending defamation suits. After all, why waste time and money filing legal papers to initiate a lawsuit if the mere threat of a suit will silence your critics?”