Immediately following a report by the New York Times that he allegedly sexually assaulted numerous women throughout his career, Harvey Weinstein threatened to sue the Times for defamation. For First Amendment legal scholars, this comes as no surprise. There’s a long history of powerful bullies attempting to use the legal system to silence their critics.
These types of lawsuits, most commonly called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), are used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to defend these baseless but costly suits. SLAPP filers don’t go to court to seek justice. Rather, SLAPPS are intended to intimidate the target by draining their financial resources and dragging them through years in the court system.
Luckily for residents of Ohio, a new bill introduced by State Sen. Matt Huffman (R-Lima), would protect Ohioans from frivolous lawsuits that chill their First Amendment rights. Senate Bill 206, The Ohio Citizen Participation Act, would allow Ohio to join 28 other states that have already enacted anti-SLAPP laws of their own, and put Ohio at the forefront of protecting free speech and petition activity.
The Ohio Citizen Participation Act will not only protect journalists who are threatened for reporting on sexual harassment and assault allegations, as occurred with the Times’ Weinstein investigation. The Act will also help protect the domestic violence and sexual assault survivors who are afraid to speak out for fear of their abusers, who can use the courts as a weapon of retaliation. As Nancy Neylon, Executive Director of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, pointed out, “court proceedings can provide a tool for abusers to exert and reestablish control over a domestic violence survivor long after the relationship has ended.”
These retaliatory lawsuits can arise in many contexts, including suing survivors for defamation if a survivor reports the abusers to law enforcement or speaks out publicly about the abuse they have suffered. This turns our legal system on its head, as the very place to which a survivor turns for protection becomes a weapon used against them.
The Ohio Citizen Participation Act will help prevent frivolous lawsuits against all Ohioans, including domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, and help ensure that bullies don’t use the legal system as a tool of intimidation and retaliation.
For these reasons, I applaud Sen. Huffman for introducing the Ohio Citizen Participation Act. I hope that it passes through the state legislature quickly and is signed by the governor.
Evan Mascagni is the Policy Director for the Public Participation Project, a non-profit organization working to strengthen the First Amendment rights of all Americans by enacting strong anti-SLAPP legislation at the state and federal level. This column was distributed to member newspapers by the Ohio News Media Association, of which the Urbana Daily Citizen is a member.