Protect right to speak out

In our democracy, people need laws to protect their rights.

Among the laws that should be strengthened is one to protect individuals and organizations from frivolous lawsuits designed to silence them.

The Assembly has passed, and the state Senate is considering, legislation that would expand a state law to protect people from a type of litigation known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.

The New York News Publishers Association points out the existing state law only protects speech about matters relating to a public application or permit process. This could refer to a real-estate development situation.

As it stands, the law could be interpreted narrowly. People speaking out could be subject to legal action from those who want them to stay silent. People who speak their mind at a public meeting could be at risk of being dragged into a costly, frivolous lawsuit. Nonprofit organizations, journalists, small-business owners, teachers, public officials and citizens have been the targets of litigation that falls outside the narrow scope of the current law, according to the New Publishers Association.

Silencing opposition is easy when a lawyer can send a letter to people who speak at a public meeting and threaten to take them to court for expressing their opinion.

The proposed legislation would amend a section of civil rights law to protect “any communication in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public concern; or any other lawful conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of free speech in connection with an issue of public concern, or in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of petition.”

We encourage the state Legislature to adopt the amendment.