Saturday, September 20, 2008

Stop SLAPPing


I mentioned at the end of my last posting that I wanted to say something more about the suit Portsmouth attorney and city councilman Michael Mearan filed against me in which he claimed I had libeled him by calling him a “shyster.” What he is trying to do is SLAPP me down. The emergence of SLAPPing coincides with and is a response to the Blogosphere, where ordinary citizens can document, publicize, and express their disapproval of the misdeeds of public figures, from the president of the United States to a member of the local city council. Expressing an opinion of public figures is every citizen’s constitutional right.

I will turn to Wikipedia for the definition of SLAPP, an acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. These are suits about speech on any public issue, such as those Mearan becomes involved with as a member of city council. To quote Wikipedia, SLAPP “is a lawsuit or a threat of lawsuit that is intended to intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the costs of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition. Winning the lawsuit is not necessarily the intent of the person filing the SLAPP. The plaintiff’s goals are accomplished if the defendant succumbs to fear, intimidation, mounting legal costs or simple exhaustion and abandons the criticisms.” Referring to SLAPPs, New York Supreme Court Judge J. Nicholas Colabella wrote, “Short of a gun to the head, a greater threat to the First Amendment expression can scarcely be imagined.” Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller wrote “A SLAPP Against Freedom,” which began, “While authoritarian regimes silence critics by murdering or jailing them, journalists (and other critics) in the United States face gentler, but still effective, intimidation: libel lawsuits.”

Mearan’s suit against me is a glaring example of SLAPP. Anyone who knows him, or of him by reputation, could have figured that out. No way in the world would he go forward with a suit in which he would have to testify under oath, in court, about his reputation for being involved in prostitution and drug trafficking. Nor would he be willing to testify about his role as chairman of the City Building Committee, which recommended that the city “utilize the Adelphia building site to construct a City Hall complex to house all city departments with the exception of the Health Department.” Mearan’s role as chair of the City Building Committee was a direct conflict of interest since a client of his, who owned the Adelphia site, stood to benefit financially if the city utilized the site for public purposes.

Mearan slapped me with a suit to stop me from expressing my opinion about his conflict of interest as chair of the Building Committee and to stop me from expressing my opinion, granted to me under the First Amendment, about his role as the lawyer for Karol Craft and her son Timothy, who were given what a counsel for the Ohio Supreme Court called Mearan’s “disastrous” advice to accept a loan from a “business associate” of Mearan. What the Supreme Court counsel apparently failed to notice was that the loan was not only disastrous for Mrs. Craft, who lost her home as a result of it, but also criminally usurious, which should by law invalidate everything that followed, including Mrs. Craft’s loss of her home. Mrs. Craft’s claims that her signature was forged on the deed by which ownership of her property was passed on to an employee of Mearan. That is another matter Mearan would have to testify to if the suit goes to trial.

But Mearan probably never intended to testify to anything when he SLAPPed his suit against me, and neither do the hundreds of other public officials and public figures across the country who are resorting to SLAPPs to silence and intimidate their critics. SLAPPing has become so widespread that some twenty-five states and one territory, according to Wikipedia, have passed legislation to curb the abuse. California, as far back as 1993, was one of the first states to take action against SLAPPers. California even has a SLAPPback law that allows victims to recover their legal costs from SLAPPers. Libel suits have since declined in California, presumably as a result of Anti-SLAPP statutes. A public interest group, the California Anti-SLAPP Project, maintains a helpful website. On that site is “A Survival Guide for Slapp Victims.” Another helpful website is the SLAPP Resource Center. Ohio’s neighbors Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, and Tennessee have anti-SLAPP statutes or case law, but Ohio does not. Perhaps our representative in the Ohio House of Representatives, Assistant House Democratic Leader, Todd Book, can help introduce Anti-SLAPP legislation once he finishes his Indian Head Rock crusade. I would like to see Anti-SLAPP legislation someday listed as an achievement on the Todd Book Wikipedia site.

As dense as he sometimes appears to be, I think Mearan must understand by now that he is not going to get away with SLAPPing. He started to SLAPP Sentinel editor Austin Leedom but has apparently backed off. We Portsmouth bloggers are not going to let ourselves be SLAPPed around by the likes of Mike Mearan. In spite of the adage that a man who serves as his own lawyer has a fool for a client, Mearan is representing himself in his suit against me. Since he does not plan to bring this suit against me to trial, he saves himself the expense of a lawyer. I am not spared that expense, but fortunately that is an expense I can meet. That is not always the case with victims of SLAPP suits, and that is not the case with Mrs. Craft, the seventy-year-old homeless widow, who has been railroaded by Mearan far more cruelly than I have been SLAPPed. Notwithstanding rumors that Mearan’s pandering to the vices of the legal establishment in Portsmouth gains him a peculiar kind of immunity, I will see justice done, sooner or later, or I will die trying.