COLUMBUS — After momentum fizzled the first time around, state Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, re-introduced an Ohio bill meant to curtail frivolous lawsuits that target individuals for practicing protected speech.
Known as the Ohio Citizen Participation Act, the bill would create an expedited legal framework for courts to follow if a SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation, ends up in civil court.
Huffman, who re-introduced the bill during a Tuesday morning press conference, said the bill’s purpose is to encourage public discussion and discourage the use of lawsuits that effectively stymie conversation by saddling individuals with unfair court procedure. Similar bills have been adopted by 36 other states by both conservative and liberal legislatures.
During the morning press conference, Huffman introduced the bill by using a story about his past on Lima City Council. While serving on council, Huffman said he had faced some pushback about the public remarks he had made. At the time, co-councilors requested that future discussions about topics be conducted privately.
“The problem with that is, questions that should be asked publicly are not asked publicly. Issues are not raised that should be raised. So the questions is: if policy makers aren’t always going to do that when they should, then who’s going to do that? And the answer is the folks sitting here in this room,” Huffman said while referencing the group of reporters in the room.
Huffman introduced a similar bill during the last General Assembly, which languished in committee. To ensure the updated bill doesn’t see the same fate, Huffman decided to eliminate an earlier portion of the bill that protects anonymous posters online. Without the portion, Huffman said he expects the bill to see more bipartisan support from Ohio legislators.
While the bill’s goal is to better protect First Amendment practices, Huffman and his colleagues emphasized that the bill would not expand First Amendment rights nor protect those committing libel and slander.
“The bill does not prevent legitimate victims of defamation from hearing their day in court,” Thomas Haren, an associate with the law firm Frantz Ward, said.
As Haren explained, the bill would allow any contested speech to be determined as “protected communication,” and a new process of expedited review would be put in place if such a determination is made by the courts. The bill also would allow the rewarding of punitive damages if an unfounded SLAPP lawsuit ends up negatively affecting the defendant or his/her livelihood.
“The First Amendment is obviously of great importance, and anything that we can do to increase openness, to increase transparency, to protect the citizen’s ability to criticize their government, to ask tough questions, to make sure that they’re getting answers, is a step in the right direction,” Senate President Larry Obhof said.
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.