Large companies use SLAPP suits to silence their critics by tying up their time, money and emotional energy. The result is often crippling emotional and financial stress and years spent dealing with the court system, time that could have been devoted to advocacy and campaigning. On a societal level, SLAPP suits suppress public participation and protest.
Given that Australians have no constitutional right to free speech, SLAPP suits are a significant problem. As Brian Walters SC says in his book Slapping on the Writs: ‘The community is not some vague ether in the air — it is the communication between its members. When we stifle public discourse, we stifle community’.
In August, the ACT Legislative Assembly passed the Protection of Public Participation Act 2008. Like most pieces of new legislation, it didn’t receive much press. This does not, however, mean it wasn’t significant. It is the first anti-SLAPP law in Australia, imposing civil penalties on companies engaged in lawsuits undertaken specifically to silence critics and stop public debate.
The Act is a truly non-partisan piece of legislation; it was written by the Greens, amended by Labor and supported by all three parties. In combination with the ACT Human Rights Act 2004, it is a bold move towards promoting free speech and an engaged citizenry. What we need now is for mirror legislation to be introduced in all other Australian jurisdictions. If Rudd wants an era of increased federalism, this would be a good place to start.