This piece originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 27, 2023.
The rich shouldn’t be able to weaponize frivolous litigation to stifle speech — and Pennsylvania lawmakers have an opportunity to ensure they can’t. House Bill 1466, if passed, would become what’s known as the Uniform Public Expression Protection Act. It would deter meritless lawsuits that aim to silence or punish speakers, usually using a baseless defamation claim. Such lawsuits are known as SLAPPs, which stands for strategic lawsuits against public participation. Anti-SLAPP laws provide defenses to these lawsuits. Without such protections, the costs and stress created by SLAPPs can be devastating. Even worse, the mere threat of litigation can chill speech, discouraging individuals from speaking for fear of financial ruin.
HB 1466 strengthens the commonwealth’s anti-SLAPP protections, which are woefully inadequate. Pennsylvania received a D- grade last year in the Institute for Free Speech’s 50-state anti-SLAPP report because its law covers only speech about environmental rules. HB 1466 cures that defect by expanding protection to all expression on any matter of public concern. The bill also contains critical provisions that deter SLAPPs and minimize litigation costs for defendants. These improvements would protect Pennsylvanians from frivolous, speech-suppressing lawsuits.
Just a few weeks ago, neighboring New Jersey became the 33rd state to pass an anti-SLAPP law, and it’s one of the nation’s best. The unanimous, bipartisan support for that bill speaks to the broad appeal of anti-SLAPP laws, and the vital mission of safeguarding everyone’s right to free speech. Pennsylvania lawmakers should follow the example set by New Jersey, New York, and other states by protecting all speech on public policies. Pennsylvanians deserve to speak freely without fear of reprisals by wealthy plaintiffs who, without such protections, could suppress speech they dislike.