Several years ago, my neighborhood association and each one of its members personally were threatened by a local powerful developer with a lawsuit. We were told that not only would we be sued as an association but each one personally would be “tied up for life” in an expensive legal battle. He said he had lawyers on retainer, so it did not matter to him how long he could drag it out.
Our offense? We disagreed about how City of San Antonio interpreted our NCD guidelines for a chain gas station he was developing, raised the $600 filing fee, and filed an appeal to the Board of Adjustment. On the very same day, we were threatened with a law suit. The point for the developer was not winning the suit, but dragging us all through years of litigation.
It was a dark moment when our association board sat at my dining room table with our zoning committee and we decided to pull the appeal. We could not compete with all that money and power.
Soon after, our State Representative Diego Bernal and State Senator Menendez let us know about the Anti-SLAPP law that would protect us as we lawfully advocated or took actions to protect our neighborhoods or communities and they would stand by our side. The anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law, also known as the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA), passed in 2011, protects first amendment rights, public participation and the media. The TCPA protects against abusive behavior by allowing for early dismissal of such suits and ordering the plaintiffs to pay the defendant’s legal fees. Although it had become too late to file our appeal, we understood that in the future we would be protected.
House Bill 2730 by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, would gut the Texas Citizens Participation Act, a law that protects average citizens from being financially ruined by meritless defamation lawsuits filed by plaintiffs with deep pockets. The past eight years the law has protected common people who dare to speak their minds on matters of public concern.
HB 2730 and SB 2162 threaten the Texas anti-SLAPP law
The bills currently proposed would undermine the Texas Citizen Participation Act (TCPA), which has become the model for similar legislation in other states. The TCPA allows the courts to quickly dismiss meritless defamation and other lawsuits designed to silence everyday people as well as the press. Such meritless claims – so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits — are routinely filed by people with deep pockets not to ultimately succeed in the courts but to run up legal costs in order to intimidate or stop free speech.
For example, House Bill 2730 and SB 2162 would allow the entity accused of filing a meritless lawsuit to drop their case just days before a hearing. This effectively allows an entity to sue a media company for defamation, receive a hearing date, and then drop the lawsuit days before a hearing to avoid a bad ruling and the cost of the defendant’s legal fees.
Where HB 2730 is now?
Currently HB 2730 is being considered by the House Committee on Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence who heard testimony on April 1st.
This is a dangerous bill that would put community leaders in jeopardy as they advocate for their neighborhoods in lawful and exercise their constitutional right to free speech.
CoSA and Neighborhood Protection
Our neighborhood association, and then Tier One Neighborhood Coalition, asked that CoSA make a public statement that they would support any citizens who participated in their lawful rights to advocate for their neighborhoods. Then Mayor Taylor promised to do so, but it never happened though we have asked repeatedly.
Now we have submitted this request as part of the implementation of the Public Participation Principles.
What Can You Do?
Contact the following Committee members today to demand that they do not silence our advocacy. Please also write your local state and senate representatives.
Read more at NowCastSA here.