Hanbidge, Cerrato bill to protect freedom of speech passes the House unanimously

Legislation cracks down on frivolous litigation

HARRISBURG, Oct. 5 — Legislation designed to cut down on baseless lawsuits and protect freedom of speech, sponsored by state Reps. Liz Hanbidge and Melissa Cerrato, both D-Montgomery, passed the House unanimously today.

House Bill 1466 addresses Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs. These are lawsuits filed against a person or organization for statements made or positions taken in connection with a matter of public interest or regulation. They're often rooted in various and wide-ranging legal theories with the aim to intimidate the party bringing the action into dropping an otherwise merit-based lawsuit.

The legislation would create a process to quickly dismiss SLAPP lawsuits based upon protected speech through a motion to dismiss. If the motion is successful, defendants may recover attorney’s fees, costs and damages related to the action. Under this legislation, there is also a SLAPP back provision, so if a party invokes a SLAPP motion frivolously or solely to cause unnecessary delay, the court will award attorney’s fees and costs to the non-moving party.

“It’s unfortunately all too easy in Pennsylvania to initiate a meritless lawsuit solely with the intention of shutting down debates on public issues,” Hanbidge said. “It’s not only burdensome to be on the receiving end of a SLAPP lawsuit, but they contribute to our already congested court system and delay justice for cases that have genuine legal grounds.”

“SLAPP suits are all about controlling a narrative through a convoluted, baseless and expensive legal process. Our bill aims to eradicate these from the commonwealth while simultaneously protecting the right to free speech,” Cerrato said.

Pennsylvania established limited protections from SLAPP lawsuits in 2000, but only in the narrow area of environmental law and regulations, Hanbidge and Cerrato noted, citing the need for their expansion.

H.B. 1466, co-sponsored by Reps. Ryan Bizzarro, D-Erie; Joe Hohenstein, Tarik Khan and Patrick Gallagher, all D-Phila.; Lisa Borowski, D-Delaware; and Tim Brennan, D-Bucks, will be now sent to the Senate for consideration.