1st Amendment News

Anti-SLAPP law used against citizens legislature intended to protect

The Redding Record Searchlight says that when Shasta County uses an anti-SLAPP law to sue a citizen seeking redress of grievance, it constitutes a regrettable development for a law intended to protect the right of citizens to speak out on controversial issues. -DB

The Redding Record Searchlight
Opinion
October 5, 2009

Leave it to the lawyers.

In 1992, the state passed a law aimed at protecting citizens who speak their minds on controversial issues from expensive, time-consuming lawsuits.

In 2009, that same law is being used by the government itself against a citizen – and to drag out a lawsuit.

The litigation between Inwood winery owner Reverge Anselmo and Shasta County is a complicated affair. Anselmo probably could have settled it long ago by playing nice over a county grading permit, but he has the resources and inclination to fight it out.

He sued various state and county officials last year, including Supervisors Glenn Hawes and Les Baugh. He then added the complaint that the county vengefully denied a Williamson Act tax break – which the Board of Supervisors failed to approve late last year in part because Hawes and Baugh recused themselves from the vote. (They were right to do so, since Anselmo was suing them and all.)

In fighting Anselmo’s lawsuit, the county’s legal team has wielded a novel weapon: the anti-SLAPP law. A SLAPP – or strategic lawsuit against public participation – is an abusive legal action designed to intimidate citizens into silence. The state’s anti-SLAPP law allows a judge to quickly dismiss such suits and protect a citizen’s rights.

The county, however, has tried to have Anselmo’s lawsuit dismissed on the argument that it threatens the First Amendment rights of county officials and, indeed, the county itself.

Superior Court Judge Monica Marlow rejected that idea, but now the county has appealed Marlow’s ruling. The 3rd District Court of Appeals in Sacramento will consider the issue in the appellate courts’ sweet time.

Does Anselmo’s lawsuit have any merit? Who knows? But he is exercising his right to petition for redress of grievance – the very right the Legislature aimed to safeguard with the anti-SLAPP statute. That a measure to protect citizens is now being exploited to protect government from a citizen is probably legal, but it’s a sad twisting of a noble law.

Our view: The anti-SLAPP law wasn’t written to protect the government.

Copyright 2009 Scripps Newspaper Group

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