Imagine going before the Colorado Springs City Council to voice concerns about a development proposed for your neighborhood. You don’t like the proposal and you list your concerns before the council. A few days later a lawsuit arrives in your mailbox.
You’ve been SLAPPed.
House Bill 1192 would defend citizens from similar situations – developers suing to silence them from testifying before city councils, zoning boards and other governmental bodies.
“It protects and encourages citizen participation in our government,” said HB 1192 sponsor State Representative Bill Sinclair, R-Colorado Springs.
Opponents of the bill say it gives people a license to lie about projects they may not want in their neighborhoods.
“It’s one thing for people to speak out on an issue,” said Diane Millstein, an attorney who filed suit in a New York case. “But we have been subject to outrageous mailings and abuses that go far beyond fair comment.”
HB 1192 gives citizens and homeowner groups immunity from so-called SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) suits. Such lawsuits are almost always thrown out of court, Sinclair said, but not before costing citizens large amounts of money. The intended result, then, is to intimidate citizens from making public comment.
“Citizens should not have to contend with drawn-out court battles, legal fees, stress and anxiety just because they want to make their voices heard,” Sinclair said. HB 1192 would allow those who are the subject of a SLAPP action to file a motion to dismiss or otherwise dispose of the case brought against them, Sinclair said.
Upon dismissal, the bill authorizes a person damaged or injured because of the SLAPP action to seek relief for actual or compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney fees and costs from the person responsible.
Concern that citizens might lie about projects they don’t support can be addressed by having those testifying do so under oath, making them liable for perjury for lying, bill proponents say.
Sinclair sponsored a similar bill last year, and it appeared to have enough support to pass. But a massive lobbyist effort helped defeat it. Undaunted, Sinclair registered his bill again this year, saying 20 other states have similar laws protecting citizens from SLAPP lawsuits.
“It’s time Colorado enacted similar protections,” Sinclair said.
The bill has the support of House Speaker Doug Dean and House Minority Leader Dan Grossman. Regina Wicks, of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, said her organization also backs the bill.
“Citizens should be free to express their views in a public arena without fear of retribution,” Wicks said. “This bill protects first amendment rights to free speech in all government forums.”
The House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee approved HB1192 by a 5-4 vote, with two Colorado Springs Republicans, Dave Schultheis and Bill Cadman, voting against it. The bill now goes to the House floor for consideration.
Rep. Mark Paschall, R-Arvada, has introduced a similar bill. HB 1267 would require government agencies to notify the public that they must be truthful under penalty of perjury.