Canton Repository editorial: Protect free speech by protecting public, press

Editorial from The Canton Repository Our view: Lawmakers should pass SPEAK FREE Act

It’s time lawmakers protect the public and the press from frivolous, scare-tactic lawsuits that are only intended to intimidate.

Ohio is one of 22 states that has yet to enact anti-SLAPP laws. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. The intent of SLAPP suits isn’t necessarily to win, but rather to burden the defendant with legal fees and publicly humiliate them through time-consuming legal proceedings. They’re essentially an attack on First Amendment rights, which is why many states have laws safeguarding critical public discourse.

Free speech advocates point to two lawsuits in Ohio that they say may not have proceeded if anti-SLAPP laws were in place here.

The first involved a South Carolina woman who left a negative review on eBay after buying a product from Ohio-based Med Express in 2013. The product was sent to the woman, but it required her to pay additional postage of $1.44. Unhappy, the woman left a harmless comment on eBay’s seller feedback page. The company, according to reports, apologized immediately and offered to reimburse the woman.

It also asked her to remove her comment because it had impacted its merchant rating on the site. When she didn’t, the company sued to force her and eBay to remove the remarks. It later withdrew the suit.

In another case, Murray vs. Chagrin Valley Publishing Co, the three-panel 8th District Court of Appeals upheld a trial court ruling dismissing a libel and false-light claim brought by the energy company against the newspaper for its news coverage and commentary of a 2012 protest outside company offices. The company claimed the coverage was based on lies.

In rendering its decision, the three-judge panel said the case “illustrates the need for Ohio to join the majority of states in this country that have enacted statutes that provide for quick relief from suits aimed at chilling protected free speech. These suits, referred to as strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) can be devastating to individual defendants or small news organizations and act to chill criticism and debate.”

The company cited the appellate court’s “unwarranted step” of calling for anti-SLAPP laws in its appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, which this week declined to take up the case.

So what do anti-SLAPP laws do? They make it easier for the targets of these lawsuits to have such claims dismissed and, if successful in doing so, be reimbursed for court costs and attorney fees.

According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, such statutes put the burden on plaintiffs to demonstrate their claims have merit and stand a reasonable chance of success.

In May, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced federal anti-SLAPP legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. The SPEAK FREE Act would apply to speech on matters of public concern and in connection with official proceedings. We urge Ohio’s Congressional delegation to support the SPEAK FREE Act to protect the most fundamental right of our democracy.