With Gov. Rick Perry's signature, Texas became the 27th state to adopt legislation that protects citizens from being sued for expressing their First Amendment rights.
On June 17, the Citizens Participation Act was signed into law after it was approved by a two-thirds majority vote in the Texas Senate. The statute is designed to protect the freedom of speech of citizens who speak out on matters of public concern and then become targets of strategic lawsuits against public participation, also known as SLAPP suits.
SLAPP suits are meritless suits filed as a means of intimidating or silencing the public criticism by keeping defendants tied in court for years and forcing them to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees.
In May, the Texas House voted 142-0 to give final approval to House Bill 2973, authored by state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi. The Senate companion bill, SB 1565, was written by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.
"These SLAPP suits are the bully's weapon against democracy," said Ellis. "Across Texas and the nation, the powerful are using our courts – and the threat of high legal costs and bankruptcy – to silence critics and shield wrong-doers from scrutiny. HB 2973 evens the playing field and ensures the little guy won't be put in the poorhouse for standing up for what he believes in. The right to free speech is perhaps our most hallowed right. Deep-pocketed bad actors and bullies should not be able to use the courts to silence citizens.
SLAPP suits have been filed over activities like blogging, circulating petitions, organizing demonstrations, testifying at public hearings and writing letters to the editor. A SLAPP suit can be presented as a civil lawsuit based on a traditional tort or personal injury law, such as defamation, nuisance, invasion of privacy, conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, interference with contract or economic advantage.
However, the First Amendment Project Anti-SLAPP Resource Center emphasizes that neither the context nor the specific legal theory is important – if the activity which triggered the lawsuit is constitutionally protected free speech or public petition, then the suit is a SLAPP.
The Texas Association of Broadcasters, the Texas Press Association, Belo and Fox Television are among supporters of the legislation, as well as two groups that are usually on opposing sides of legal issues: trial lawyers and tort reformers.
Because the Senate approved the bill by more than a two-thirds majority, the bill became effective upon Perry's signature.