ACLU Hails Rhode Island Supreme Court Decision Protecting Victims of Legal Intimidation

December 14, 2000 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI–In an important victory for free speech rights, the Rhode Island Supreme Court today issued a strong ruling supporting the broad scope of the state’s anti-SLAPP suit act, in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.

SLAPP or “”Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation,”” is the name given to lawsuits brought to chill people from exercising their freedom of speech on matters of public concern.

“”The Court’s opinion is a ringing endorsement of the state’s anti-SLAPP law,”” said Steven Brown, Executive Director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the ACLU. “”It will help ensure that all Rhode Islanders can address matters of public concern in their community without fear of retaliation.””

The case arose in 1997, when a Coventry couple, Henry and Marcia Mallette, were sued for defamation after publicly raising environmental concerns about Global Waste Recycling, a local recycling facility. The ACLU argued that the lawsuit brought against the Mallette’s was a classic SLAPP suit and an attempt to intimidate Coventry residents from speaking out against the facility.

The ACLU noted that the town council itself has questioned the facility’s legal right to operate under town zoning ordinances, and the Department of Environmental Management had sent “letters of deficiencies” to the recycling facility.

The Court unanimously agreed that the statements made by the couple were protected free speech activity, and rejected as “”without merit”” the facility’s arguments that the SLAPP law should not apply.

In its appeal to the state supreme court, Global Waste Recycling argued that the statute should be limited only to protecting public comments made at governmental meetings or hearings, and not to the media.

The Court today rejected that reasoning, and ordered an award of attorneys fees to the Mallettes.

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