Environment in Crisis

Lawsuits Against Participation

What are they?
Legal Mechanisms


Back to Main Menu..

The Chill Effect
Shift Balance of Power

The Chill Effect

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?"

...back to top


Another effect of the SLAPP is to distract the key antagonists from the main controversy and use up their money, time and energy in the courtroom, where the issues are not discussed. Activists use the political arena to expand the debate, enrol other citizens on their side and spread the conflict. The firms and developers that utilise SLAPPs are trying to subvert and circumvent that political process "by enlisting judicial power against their opponents." SLAPPs "are an attempt to 'privatise' public debate—a unilateral effort by one side to transform a public, political dispute into a private, legal adjudication, shifting both forum and issues to the disadvantage of the other side."

...back to top

Shift Balance of Power

SLAPPs can also shift the balance of power giving the firm filing the SLAPP suit the upper hand when they are losing in the political arena. Action tends to be taken against citizens who are successfully opposing them because those taking the action are afraid that they will not win in the public, political forum. In the courts, the wealth of the disputants, and their ability to hire the best lawyers can influence the outcome. "Whereas in the political realm the filer is typically on the defensive, in the legal realm the filer can go on the offensive, putting the target's actions under scrutiny." Prolonged litigation can even achieve community compliance through delay and loss of sustained interest in the broader public.

...back to top

Additional Material

Penelope Canan and George W. Pring, 'Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation', Social Problems, Vol. 35, No. 5 (1988) , p. 515; Pring & Canon, 'SLAPPs', p. 381.

George W. Pring and Penelope Canan, '"SLAPPs"—"Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation" in Government—Diagnosis and Treatment of the Newest Civil Rights Abuse' in Civil Rights Litigation and Attourney Fees Annual Handbook, Clark Boardman, 1993.

Diana Jean Schemo, 'Silencing the Opposition Gets Harder', New York Times, 2 July 1992.

Tobi Lippin, 'Uncivil Suits', Technology Review, Vol. 94, No. 3 (1991) , p. 15.

Chris Tollefson, 'Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation: Developing a Canadian Response', The Canadian Bar Review, Vol. 73 (1994) , p. 207.

Catherine Dold, 'SLAPP Back!', Buzzworm: The Environmental Journal, Vol. IV, No. 4 (1992) , p. 36.

Kim Goldberg, 'SLAPPs Surge North: Canadian Activists Under Attack', The New Catalyst, Vol. 25 (Winter 1992/3) , pp. 1-3.

SLAPP Happy:Corporations That Sue to Shut You Up, PR Watch, No 2, 1997.

Wild Law, a Non-Profit Environmental Law: SLAPP SUITS: What to do When the Empire Strikes Back

Simon Waters, INTERFOR Tries to Bankrupt BC Forest Activists, Taiga-News, no 21, June 1997.

...back to top

© 2003 Sharon Beder