ACLU Defends Activists Sued For Organizing Petition Drive
June 16, 2016
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 16, 2016
CONTACT: Brittany Oliver, ACLU of Maryland, 410-693-4877; email@example.com
FALLSTON, MD - Taking a stand against lawsuits intended to keep Marylanders from speaking out on matters of public concern, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland is moving to dismiss a lawsuit filed against two Fallston women simply because they increased awareness and spoke out against a proposal by Harford County to expand the development envelope in their community. So-called "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation" or "SLAPP" suits are intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of litigation and threats of big damage awards.
"Maryland needs to strengthen our legal protections to ensure community members can speak their minds on government policies and proposals," said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland. "What makes ‘SLAPP' lawsuits so dangerous is that they can silence concerned individuals just because they cannot afford lawyers to defend against baseless lawsuits filed for the purpose of intimidating them."
Stephanie Flasch and Beth Poggioli have been promoting a website called "Keep Fallston Rural" and a petition raising concerns about a proposed expansion to Harford County's "development envelope." The proposed expansion includes property owned by Michael Euler, who claims that Flasch and Poggioli mischaracterize his intentions about the development of his land as part of the expansion. However, Ms. Flasch and Ms. Poggioli's efforts are not concerned with Euler's intentions, but on the potential scope and effects of the County's development expansion.
"Acknowledging opposing views helps to create best outcomes. This lawsuit seeks to defeat the opportunity to develop the best outcome through public discourse," said Poggioli. "This lawsuit greatly discourages public participation in government, something that is so vital in our community," added Flasch
SLAPP suits threaten public discourse and chill free speech by targeting those who speak out on matters of public importance. The suits are typically filed by well-financed commercial entities seeking to intimidate critics into silence by the cost of hiring a lawyer to defend the suit, and the threat of damages. The suit filed by Mr. Euler seeks more than $100,000 in damages against the organizers of the petition drive, simply for exercising their constitutional right to criticize the county government's plans.
In 2004, Maryland enacted an "Anti-SLAPP" statute, but it lacks critical components that would actually deter such lawsuits and protect citizens who speak out. The ACLU has repeatedly supported changes to the law that would allow victims of SLAPP suits to recover the costs of defending against the litigation when a judge concludes that the suit was improper. Provisions like this are critical to ensuring that victims of SLAPP suits can obtain legal representation, don't have to incur potentially huge legal bills simply for speaking their mind, and to preventing such suits from being brought in the first place.
"It is un-American to allow well-financed business interests to use the threat of huge legal costs to silence political opposition from members of communities affected by their plans," said attorney Robin R. Cockey of Cockey, Brennan & Maloney, PC. "I hope that by defending these two concerned women we are able to send a strong message that harassment of private citizens for speaking out about government policies will not be tolerated."
Stephanie Flasch and Beth Poggioli are represented by Robin R. Cockey and Michael P. Sullivan of Cockey, Brennan & Maloney, PC and by Deborah A. Jeon and David R. Rocah of the ACLU of Maryland.