Multi-million dollar law suits are being filed against individual citizens and groups for circulating petitions, writing to public officials, speaking at, or even just attending, public meetings, organising a boycott and engaging in peaceful demonstrations.
The development of a climate of fear that dissuades citizens from speaking out on matters of public interest and discourages activists from continuing the ‘honourable tradition’ of civil disobedience is a threat to democracy and healthy political debate. Of course lawsuits are not the only way to dissuade healthy debate on issues of importance. Litigation is however increasingly utilised to intimidate people who cannot be influenced in other ways, for example through pressure from employers or professional associations.
These law suits were labelled "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation" or SLAPPs by University of Denver academics Penelope Canan and George Pring, who were studying such suits during the 1980s with the help of funding from the US National Science Foundation.
Canan and Pring define a SLAPP as being a civil court action which alleges that injury has been caused by the efforts of nongovernment individuals or organisations to influence government action on an issue of public interest or concern. They found that "SLAPPs are filed by one side of a public, political dispute to punish or prevent opposing points of view." Of course people using SLAPPs in this way cannot directly sue people for exercising their democratic right to participate in the political process so they have to find technical legal grounds on which to bring their cases. Such grounds include defamation, conspiracy, nuisance, invasion of privacy or interference with business/economic expectancy.
Common elements of a "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation" or SLAPP are:
These lawsuits, which began in the 1970s, were a response to the growing numbers of citizens who were speaking up about environmental and other social issues. Canan and Pring began their research after they noticed an increasing number of environmentalists were being named as defendants in large civil damage cases.
This trend has now spread to other countries. In Britain, in a highly publicised case McDonald's, one of the largest companies in the world sued two unemployed activists, for distributing pamphlets critical of McDonald's (see McLibel).