DARKE COUNTY — A bill introduced in the Ohio Senate seeks to protect Ohioans expressing their opinions from being subjected to frivolous lawsuits.
Senate Bill 206, the “Ohio Citizen Participation Act,” was introduced by Senator Matt Huffman (R-Lima) October 3.
The bill currently has four cosponsors: Sen. Joe Uecker (R-Miami Township), Sen. Peggy Lehrer (R- Kettering), Sen. Lou Terhar (R-Green Township), and Sen. Kris Jordan (R-Ostrander).
If passed, the legislation would provide a speedier process for someone sued for expressing an opinion about a matter of public interest. Examples of frivilous lawsuits targeted by the legislation include landlords suing tenants over critical internet comments or domestic violence victims being sued by perpetrators after reporting their experiences.
Twenty-eight other states have similar legislation on the books. Huffman’s bill is modeled after a law in Texas.
“First Amendment rights are foundational to a free and functioning society,” said Huffman. “This legislation takes important steps to ensure that citizens’ speech and expression can never be quashed by legal tricks and protracted courtroom battles.”
Under the act, a defendant would have 60 days to file a special motion to strike down a defamation complaint. A plaintiff would have 14 days to file memorandum of opposition to the motion, and the defendant would then have 14 days to reply to the memorandum. The plaintiff or defendant would have 30 days to request a hearing. A court would have the leeway to extend the number of days for the plaintiff or defendant if good cause is shown. Attorney fees and court costs would need to be paid within 90 days if the court grants a special motion to strike.
The bill would also require internet service providers and website operators to inform potential defendants of requests to “out” their identity by name or IP address. The notice would allow them to contest subpoenas and other identification requests.
Under the act, the potential defendant would be notified, “A lawsuit has been filed relating to your speech. A party to that lawsuit is trying to uncover your identity. You must act quickly to protect your right to remain anonymous.”
A number of organizations are endorsing passage of the bill.
“This is not a liberal or conservative issue. All citizens have a stake in the right to freely express themselves,” said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio News Media Association. “Sen. Huffman’s bill does not expand libel and defamation laws. You’re still accountable for what you say and publish. This law will dispose of cases that defendants would eventually win if only they had the time and money to stay the course. These are lawsuits often designed to shut people up and send a warning to others not to speak out.”
The Ohio Domestic Violence Network is offering its support based on real-life experiences of domestic violence victims in Ohio.
“Court proceedings can provide a tool for abusers to exert and reestablish control over a domestic violence survivor long after the relationship has ended,” said Nancy Neylon, executive director of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network. “ Abusive or retaliatory litigation includes the misuse of court proceedings by abusers to control, harass intimidate coerce and /or impoverish survivors.”
Other groups adding their support for the legislation include Common Cause Ohio, Motion Picture Association of America, Ohio Association of Broadcasters, Ohio News Media Association, Yelp Inc. and the USA Today Ohio Network.