[Trailer for our book that deals with Bridget Bittman’s SLAPP, filed against us in October 2014. We prevailed in this meritless piece of lawfare, but SLAPPs typically succeed in silencing their targets. SLAPPs are a form of lawfare used by government employees to chill free speech and make people afraid of challenging bad government.]
You may not realize it, but we’re currently facing an epidemic of SLAPP lawfare in this country. A SLAPP is “strategic litigation against public participation,” a term coined by George Pring and Penelope Canan back in the 1990s in their book, SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out. This remains the definitive reference on SLAPPs, though a lot has happened since the book was written.
If you are looking for a hobby and a new topic of interest, I suggest starting a binder or notebook and researching what’s happening with SLAPPs. They are an insidious way that the government chills First Amendment protected speech by using the legal system as a weapon against the public and investigative reporters. This is happening where you live, I guarantee…but of course your local media is not talking about it. Typically, people never hear about SLAPPs until either they or someone they know personally is hit with a SLAPP.
Megan Fox and I were SLAPPed back in 2014, when Bridget Bittman (the granddaughter of the woman who used to own the Chicago White Sox sportsball team) sued us in federal court in an effort to silence our First Amendment rights. Bittman at the time was the public spokesman for the Orland Park Public Library and was told to sue us during a board meeting by Diane Jennings, one of the library’s trustees (and also the most loathsome human being I have yet met on this planet). Megan and I had uncovered years and years of unreported crimes that occurred in the library, including: (a) library staff allowing a man to admit to accessing child pornography without police being called, (b) staff allowing men to masturbate in the library openly with their penises fully exposed without calling the police, (c) men stalking women in the stacks, (d) men sexually harassing female library employees but the library telling the women they should quit if they didn’t like it, (e) a man trapping a young woman in a study room while accosting her sexually, (f) young children being accosted sexually in the library, and other sex crimes that all warranted police intervention…but time and again the library staff CHOSE not to call the police when they should have. This was a clear pattern that Megan and I uncovered, where the Orland Park Public Library made a decision to NOT call the police because it seems clear they knew that if they had done so then the police would have come and made arrests…and that would have been bad publicity for the library.
Since Bittman was in charge of the library’s publicity as its spokesman, the library Board pushed her to hit us with a SLAPP to scare us away and silence us. Megan and I wrote about it in our book SHUT UP! The Bizarre War that One Public Library Waged Against the First Amendment (now available in paperback and as an eBook too). We prevailed in this SLAPP and our First Amendment rights were upheld, though Bittman’s lawsuit cost us more than two years’ of time to defeat and many hours of work defending ourselves which could have been spent writing, researching, and participating in other investigations into corrupt government.
So, by suing us, Bittman was able to strategically steal time and resources from us that prevented Megan and me from exposing other public bodies that were doing the same things that the Orland Park Public Library was doing…or even prevented us from finding more of what Orland Park was trying to desperately to hide. Bittman knew her lawsuit would never even make it into discovery and she never had any intention of winning (since she knew she never had any ground to stand on); the whole point of the lawsuit was to be a time-killing energy drain that would distract us, take up our time, and cost us precious resources to defend against.
Consumerist has started reporting on SLAPPs, which is great because I hope that more people out there realize that this is happening. In a recent article, Consumerist talked about SLAPPs and how they “leverage the legal system — and all its attendant costs and Byzantine paperwork — in an effort to chill free speech.” In our example with Comiskey heiress Bridget Bittman, Megan and I were forced to come up with a way to defend ourselves in a meritless lawsuit filed by a woman who not only had the remnants of the Comiskey fortune at her disposal but was also being funded by members of the American Library Association (who wanted Megan and me silenced because we were exposing the consequences of years and years of bad ALA policy). Having to mount a defense against even a meritless lawsuit is soul-killingly expensive because of how our system works and how a plaintiff with disreputable attorneys can manipulate the system to cause delay after delay. In Bittman’s case, almost every time there was some filing due, her attorneys (which were the sort of people who advertise on bus benches or in the local coupon paper that comes to your doorstep) would invent some new excuse for why they needed an extension. Sometimes they would do this the day that the filing was due. If everything they said happened to them was true every time they wanted to delay the process, that law firm should be the star of its own reality show: there were mysterious deaths, severe illnesses that would have made great episodes of House, M.D., claims they suddenly had to fly to London, a dog eating the important papers, etc. The strategy appeared to be one of delay, delay, delay…hoping that financially Bittman could outlast us and break us before the lawsuit would ever enter into discovery phase.
I spent hours reviewing everything that Bittman’s attorneys filed, as well as all of the documents that our own attorneys had to file in response. Many more hours were spent collecting documents to rebut Bittman, combing through emails for responsive documents, and assembling everything related to our investigation into the Orland Park Public Library so it could all be reviewed by attorneys. I probably put 200 hours of work, at least, into this sort of tedious-but-necessary document review in our defense against her SLAPP.
That’s 200 hours that I was then not able to spend writing, researching, going to board meetings, or otherwise working as an investigative reporter and citizen sleuth covering corrupt government in Illinois. So, Bittman’s SLAPP lawsuit created an obstacle to my work exposing government corruption, since the SLAPP took time and resources away from me that I would normally have used to investigate bad local government (such as the Orland Park Public Library Board).
SLAPP lawsuits typically end before discovery begins, which is what happened with Bittman’s suit. A federal judge dismissed more than half of the counts she filed against us and then Bittman withdrew the remainder of her lawsuit before any documents were ever exchanged in discovery. No depositions were ever taken and Bittman never had to produce any documents that would have been embarrassing to her or that would have proved she was dishonest in the various claims she made in her suit. The way our legal system is setup, someone like Bittman can file a SLAPP to silence your free speech, never intending to win the lawsuit, and drag it out strategically with delays and extensions…but still have the option of withdrawing it in the end (before she would be exposed in discovery for being dishonest). In Illinois at least, there is no mechanism to punish a plaintiff for bringing a SLAPP using this strategy. That’s why more and more people like Bittman are doing this around the country when they don’t like that someone is criticizing a public body or public employees.
In Illinois we have a weak anti-SLAPP law called the Citizen Participation Act (CPA), but it only is useful in very specific and limited cases in dismissing a SLAPP before the discovery phase. Courts have severely weakened the CPA and have limited its use to only the most rare of occasions. This means our state legislature needs to go back to the drawing board to strengthen it. The courts want to maintain a balance between allowing legitimate lawsuits to continue but ending these vexatious SLAPP suits…and courts in Illinois have felt that balance was not achieved with the CPA.
As Consumerist notes, California has the best anti-SLAPP law in the country that is most pro-defendant: it allows for an expedited hearing on the defendant’s motion to strike, and will award the defendant attorney fees and court costs if the defendant prevails. But remember that there is no federal anti-SLAPP legislation. That’s something that Free Speech activists are trying to remedy right now with Congress. Something that you could do to help would be to write, email, or call your Senators and Congressional representative and tell these people that you want them to support anti-SLAPP legislation at the federal level. Tell them about the book that Megan and I wrote about Bridget Bittman’s SLAPP and what she did to us to try to chill our First Amendment protected speech.
Congress is now considering the SPEAK FREE Act, which would be federal anti-SLAPP legislation. As it’s written now (before it will no doubt be monkeyed with in committees), if the SPEAK FREE Act had been in place back in 2014, Bridget Bittman’s SLAPP against us would have been tossed out much faster than it took for us to ultimately prevail against her. She sued us in October of 2014 and her lawsuit was not fully terminated until May of 2016. That was almost two years’ of time and energy drained by a lawsuit that never involved any discovery or depositions or anything. Because the federal court system works so slowly on its own…and Bittman’s attorneys aggressively pushed for one delay after another to keep things delayed even further…this SLAPP dragged on and on absent anything like the SPEAK FREE Act to eradicate it quickly.
SLAPP lawfare is used by public officials and public employees to tie community activists up in court so they no longer have the time, money, or energy to criticize public bodies. Big developers can also use SLAPPs to crush and silence community opposition to their projects. Large corporations like AMC can even use the threat of a SLAPP to silence people’s free speech rights (in a recent instance reported by Consumerist of the tee-vee network menacing a small website that used to post spoilers and fan theories about the show The Walking Dead…but the threats from AMC’s lawyers silenced and shuttered that spoiler site).
How you can help
1. Setup a Google alert for yourself for the key words SLAPP, ANTI-SLAPP, SPEAK FREE Act, etc. This way, you will be alerted every day if stories appear somewhere on this topic. And you can then start to see how prevalent this problem is.
2. Let people know about our book SHUT UP! and that it involves a SLAPP lawsuit filed against us by Bridget Bittman, granddaughter of Dorothy Comiskey Rigney, the woman who used to own the Chicago White Sox. Bittman’s lawsuit cost us time and resources to defend against and we worked hard to give other people facing SLAPPs lessons and tips for what they, too, can do to defend themselves against this type of vexatious lawfare.
3. Contact your Senators and your Congresscritter. Tell them that you oppose SLAPPs and that you want them to support the SPEAK FREE Act to stop people like Bridget Bittman from being able to file SLAPPs to silence people who take on corrupt local government.
4. Make studying SLAPPs into a new hobby. It’s more interesting than bird watching…and SLAPPs come in all shapes, sizes, and forms. The way to bring change to our government is to empower citizens to be able to fight for that change…and one of the main weapons the government is using against the people are these SLAPPs. Let’s take this away from them so that people will no longer be intimidated into silence or feel that they need to SHUT UP! if they don’t want to be sued by powerful or rich people who have more resources than they do.
© 2016, Kevin DuJan. All rights reserved.
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