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Md. bill would increase legal protections for outspoken residents

- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — A bill under consideration in the Senate would give extra legal protection to residents who speak out against corporations and public figures.

But not everyone is happy about it.

The Senate is expected to vote this week on a measure that would crack down on Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation, or SLAPP suits — typically frivolous defamation lawsuits filed by wealthy plaintiffs to intimidate a vocal, less wealthy critic into settling out of court and keeping quiet.

The bill could force plaintiffs accused of filing frivolous SLAPP suits to prove their cases as legitimate before a trial can move forward.

Supporters say it will toughen the state's current laws and save innocent defendants thousands in legal costs, but opponents say it would lift the burden of proof too high for public figures and leave many of them powerless to defend themselves against real defamation.

"You are going to have open season on anybody who holds themselves out there in the public," said Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, Baltimore County Democrat. "It is a radical departure from what SLAPP suits are supposed to be about."

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery Democrat who says it is designed primarily to protect residents who take stances on public issues, such as neighborhood associations that criticize developers over planned projects that could affect their communities.

It would allow defendants who suspect they are a victim of a SLAPP suit to submit basic reasons for their suspicions.

If accepted by a judge, the plaintiff would then have to make their own case for why the suit is legitimate and should continue.

Mr. Frosh said Maryland's current anti-SLAPP law, which allows defendants to motion for dismissal before or during a trial, still leaves them open to costly and time-consuming court proceedings and is one of the weakest such laws in the nation.

He argued the current law requires defendants to practically read plaintiffs' thoughts to prove they are acting in bad faith, and that his bill would force plaintiffs to now lay out a viable case at the start.

"You've got to be able to show going in the door that the guy was lying," he said. "It just provides a shortcut when it's a SLAPP suit."

The Senate debated the issue last week and could vote on the bill as early as Tuesday.

While Mr. Frosh contends it will protect everyday residents who are outspoken and opinionated on government issues, some of his opponents say the bill has another purpose — to protect the media from potential libel suits.

Mr. Zirkin argued the bill is being pushed by news organizations and is designed to prevent incidents similar to the case last year in the District in which Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder sued the Washington City Paper over an article he said was defamatory.

The lawsuit dragged on for several months until Mr. Snyder dropped it before a court could rule on the newspaper's request for dismissal under the District's anti-SLAPP law.

Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, Howard Republican, said Maryland's current law is just fine and that Mr. Frosh's bill is unreasonably hard on well-meaning plaintiffs.

"It would put an undue burden upon somebody who is trying to defend themselves," he said. "I think that everybody deserves their day in court and we shouldn't be harming those who are trying to defend themselves."

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