FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – A legislative panel heard testimony today on a proposed measure to discourage lawsuits aimed at chilling First Amendment rights.
The proposed bill would seek to protect people from so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation, known as SLAPP suits.
“It is also important to note that plaintiffs that bring SLAPP lawsuits do not intend to prevail in court,” said Rep. Nima Kulkarni, D-Louisville. “Often these lawsuits are intended simply to delay matters or discourage individuals from continuing in that speech.”
She testified in support of the proposed bill before the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary along with Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville. Nemes said a classic SLAPP scenario would be a publically-elected board suing a vocal critic in an attempt to saddle that person with prohibitively expensive, nerve-racking and time-consuming legal processes.
“These are civil lawsuits masquerading as normal tort lawsuits that are actually not intended to prevail on the merits and are instead intended to delay, chill, suppress or discourage free speech,” Kulkarni said. “SLAPP lawsuits essentially intend to take a matter of public concern or significance out of the public arena and into the courtroom which shifts the attention from the speech or activity that is being engaged in and towards a legal defense.”
Sen. Phillip Wheeler, R-Pikeville, said he was opposed to an element of the proposed bill that would allow defendants to collect attorney’s fees from the filer of SLAPP suits.
“I can see some merit to what you are trying to achieve, but I also think it is a slippery slope,” he said. “There are a lot of different types of lawsuits out there that are very difficult to prove in court. That doesn’t mean they were meritless at the time they were filed.”
Wheeler added that there were already legal mechanisms to discourage frivolous lawsuits.
Kulkarni said the proposed bill took the best of the about 33 anti-SLAPP laws already enacted around the country.
The proposed bill was not prefiled at the time of the meeting, but under model anti-SLAPP statutes, the person sued can make a motion to strike the case because it involves speech on a matter of public concern.
The plaintiff then has the burden of showing a probability that they will prevail in the suit – meaning they must show that they have evidence that could result in a favorable verdict.