By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director
Gov. Jared Polis on Monday signed into law a bill to protect Coloradans from meritless lawsuits that target free expression, and he signed another measure that starts a process for incorporating media literacy into state education standards.
When House Bill 19-1324 goes into effect July 1, Colorado will join about 30 other states that provide a process for the expedited dismissal of strategic lawsuits against public participation, known as SLAPP suits. These often long and costly civil actions are brought against people, including journalists on occasion, to harass them for exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech or freedom to petition the government.
“Used to threaten people and suppress free speech, SLAPP lawsuits are an abuse of our judicial system,” said Rep. Lisa Cutter, a Littleton Democrat who sponsored the bill with Rep. Shannon Bird, D-Westminster, and Sen. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette. “They are a waste of court time, and can often cause great hardship for the defendant, even if the lawsuit is eventually dismissed. This law provides a way for a judge to more quickly dismiss these baseless lawsuits.”
“We need to stand up for the press now more than ever and can’t stand for the First Amendment and our court system being abused,” Bird said.
Colorado previously had weak anti-SLAPP protections, according to the Public Participation Project, which stemmed from a 1984 Colorado Supreme Court ruling in a case involving an environmental group’s right to petition for redress of grievances.
Modeled after California’s anti-SLAPP law, HB 19-1324 lets a defendant file a special motion to dismiss a case based on an assertion that a lawsuit arose from the exercising of his or her constitutional rights. The measure allows for an interlocutory appeal, meaning a case can be halted and immediately appealed to a higher court before the expenses of the discovery process are incurred. The new law also lets a defendant who prevails on a special motion to dismiss recover attorney fees and court fees – a provision that might make someone think twice before filing a SLAPP suit.
“SLAPPs are filed to punish speakers through protracted legal proceedings,” said First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg, president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, during a legislative hearing on the bill in April. “They cost a tremendous amount of money to defend and it’s often extremely wealthy people or well-heeled corporations that bring such suits because they can easily afford their own attorney’s fees.”
After the bill signing, Zansberg said it was a “great day for freedom of speech, assembly and the ‘right to petition the government for redress of grievances’ enjoyed by all Coloradans.”
The term SLAPP was coined in the 1980s by two professors who met at the University of Denver in the 1980s. One them, DU law professor emeritus George Pring, told Colorado Politics that he gives HB 19-1324 a B plus grade – it’s only lacking a provision that allows a person targeted by a SLAPP suit to file a lawsuit in return.
The media literacy bill, House Bill 19-1110, creates an advisory committee within the Colorado Department of Education that, with the help of a consultant, will recommend ways to incorporate media literacy into state standards for elementary and secondary education.
“There’s so much information that our kids are inundated with at an early age, with their smartphones and … from all other sources, and it’s actually becoming a real threat, being able to determine what’s real and what’s not real,” Cutter said during the signing ceremony at West Jefferson Elementary School in Conifer.
Follow the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition on Twitter @CoFOIC. Like CFOIC’s Facebook page. Visit CFOIC’s legislature page to track bills in the General Assembly that could affect the flow or availability of information in Colorado.