On July 24, 2020 Rep.  Steve Cohen (D-TN), Chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, introduced the Citizen Participation Act (HR 7771). The bill aims to make it easier to dismiss lawsuits known as Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), which are used to intimidate or silence critics, who are often activists and organizations raising awareness on a public interest issues ranging from the environment to human rights. Typically, SLAPPs are primarily intended to drive up legal costs of opponents or win a public relations victory.

SLAPPs are similar to “lawfare attacks,” a strategy used by politically motivated pro-Israeli groups to attack nonprofit organizations that conflict with their political interests. Groups that utilize lawfare file frivolous lawsuits, attack the charitable status, or pressure online donation service providers to drop accounts of their opponents (known as “deplatforming”).

Although 30 states currently have their own anti-SLAPP statutes, there is no federal policy. In a press release Cohen stated, “The court system must not be a tool wielded by the powerful against the free speech of individuals. Freedom of Speech is a core principle of our democracy, and we must protect it.”

According to Cohen’s press release, the Citizen Participation Act of 2020 is the same bill that Cohen proposed in 2009. As of the time of publication, there the text has not been posted on Congress.gov.  The 2009 bill would add further legal protections to defendants of SLAPPs and limit the amount of time spent in court. In summary the bill would:

  • limit the ability of individuals or organizations to file groundless lawsuits by ensuring plaintiffs prove knowledge of falsity with clear and convincing evidence;
  • allow the defendant to file a special motion to dismiss of any claim filed in Federal court, if the claim is due to an act or alleged act in accordance with their right to freedom of speech;
  • allow for expedited hearings through a special motion to dismiss, and issue a ruling as soon as possible after the hearing;
  • if the special motion to dismiss is granted, dismissal will be with prejudice (permanent).

The Charity & Security Network will continue to track developments in the Citizen Participation Act and monitor the abuse of legal systems to silence civil society.