Supporters of the “Ohio Citizen Participation Act” on Wednesday thanked State Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, for introducing a bill to protect Ohioans from frivolous lawsuits that chill their First Amendment rights of free speech.
A coalition of citizen, media and advocacy groups has been supporting a model bill for more than three years so that Ohio joins the majority of states with similar protections. Such laws create an option for an expedited court process to dispose of lawsuits that target citizens simply for exercising their rights.
“First Amendment rights are foundational to a free and functioning society,” Huffman said. “This legislation takes important steps to ensure that citizens’ speech and expression can never be quashed by legal tricks and protracted courtroom battles.”
Senate Bill 206, introduced on Oct. 3, is primarily modeled after a similar, successful law in Texas. Under the act, when someone is sued for expressing an opinion about a matter of public interest, the defendant can seek a “fast-track” process that can dispose of the case in a few months versus the cost and time of extended litigation. Both sides can appeal rulings made under the act.
“This is not a liberal or conservative issue. All citizens have a stake in the right to freely express themselves,” said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio News Media Association. “Sen. Huffman’s bill does not expand libel and defamation laws. You’re still accountable for what you say and publish. This law will dispose of cases that defendants would eventually win if only they had the time and money to stay the course. These are lawsuits often designed to shut people up and send a warning to others not to speak out.”
One of the groups supporting the bill is the Ohio Domestic Violence Network based on real-life experiences of domestic violence victims in Ohio.
“Court proceedings can provide a tool for abusers to exert and reestablish control over a domestic violence survivor long after the relationship has ended,” said Nancy Neylon, executive director of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network. “ Abusive or retaliatory litigation includes the misuse of court proceedings by abusers to control, harass intimidate coerce and /or impoverish survivors.”
Hetzel said the coalition found numerous other examples in Ohio in which the law would apply, ranging from landlords trying to prevent tenants from posting critical comments on the Internet to citizen groups being sued by large companies for protesting business practices. Even government officials have been sued for commenting on issues.
The bill also would make Ohio a national leader in protecting anonymous speech on the Internet by requiring website operators and Internet service providers to inform potential defendants of requests to “out them” by name or IP address. Citizens must receive notice of such demands and have an opportunity to contest subpoenas and other identification requests.
Anonymous speech is an important, long-held American tradition that needs protection in the online space, said Cincinnati attorney Jeffrey Nye, who has represented multiple defendants in such cases.
“James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote ‘The Federalist Papers’ under the pseudonym ‘Publius.’ Benjamin Franklin wrote as ‘Silence Dogood,’” Nye said. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that anonymous speech is not just protected, but hugely important.”
Groups supporting the Ohio Citizen Participation Act include: Ohio Domestic Violence Network, Common Cause Ohio, Motion Picture Association of America, Ohio Association of Broadcasters, Ohio News Media Association, Yelp Inc. and the USA Today Ohio Network.
Thomas G. Haren, an attorney with Frantz Ward LLP in Cleveland, advised the group and adds his individual support.