June 1, 2014

Editorial: New York falling behind

Astonishingly, the right of a person to speak out on a matter of importance to the public is still in peril in New York state.

Because of the failure of enough senators in the state to take a stand on it, a bill ensuring that right sits in the legislature, unaddressed.

At issue is what are called SLAPP suits — strategic lawsuits against public participation.

The federal government has not taken up this constitutional matter, so states have had to pass their own legislation on it. Many states, including Vermont, Maine and Rhode Island, have.

New York, normally in the vanguard on citizen-rights issues, has remained uncharacteristically timid.

New York has an anti-SLAPP law, but it is too weak to have the necessary effect.

Too often, people with financial power intimidate individuals who want to speak out on an issue of importance to the public. For example, in 2012, a congressional candidate sued a director of the Simon Weisenthal Center, the local leader of his own political party, his political opponent and 16 other parties for depicting as racist an article he had published in favor of “ethnic boundaries on marriage.”

The case was dismissed, but, because of the weak anti-SLAPP law in New York, the winning parties could not seek reimbursement for their legal fees. The law covers only cases involving the application of public permits —say, for a zoning variance.

Thus, people are rendered hesitant to speak out against the rich and powerful. They withhold their opinions because, even if they were to win, it would cost them prohibitive amounts in legal fees.

The law was enacted in New York in 1992 in response to a rash of real-estate developers bringing baseless and costly libel suits against citizens and community groups protesting unwanted projects in their neighborhoods.

Good idea, but, in practice, it stopped short of being effective: It didn’t protect those speaking out by mandating that, if they won their case, their legal fees would be covered by the plaintiff.

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