Pennsylvania Lawmakers Move Forward On Anti-SLAPP Legislation

from the pleading-the-First dept

Pennsylvania is looking to become the 30th state in the US to have an anti-SLAPP law on the books. Bogus defamation lawsuits and legal threats have long been used as blunt force weapons to silence critics and unflattering media coverage. It’s only in recent years that legislators have recognized the damage being done.

The case central to this legislative push is a prime example of why such laws are needed.

[Angelique] Smith, 40, a mother from Delaware County enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, gave some of the most personal and passionate testimony at the hearing.

“My daughter, my husband, and myself have been held hostage for five long and arduous years by an injustice of the worst kind,” she called out, according to transcripts and onlookers. The suit, which seeks a total of $300,000 from her and her husband, has been delayed numerous times, she said.

“We nonetheless anguish in silence, and our personal relationships suffer,” she said. “This has nearly destroyed my marriage.”

She and her husband have spent $5,000 fighting the suit and have defaulted on their home mortgage along the way.

Smith was sued in January of 2009 by Dorothy June Brown, a partner in a company (The Cynwyd Group) that allegedly defrauded three charter schools out of millions of dollars ($5 million from the Agora Cyber Charter School alone — the school Smith’s daughter was attending), charging for “management services” that apparently were never performed. Brown was also a founding partner of the Agora school, which created a conflict of interest that drew the attention of the state’s charter school oversight as well as the state itself, both of which sued the school. (Both lawsuits were settled out of court.) Not coincidentally, the parents (including Smith) raised the same allegations in 2008, drawing the attention of Brown, who sued six parents in total.

Brown sued Stefany and five other Agora parents who had raised questions about the school’s finances and its relationship with Cynwyd. Brown’s firm owned Agora’s building in Devon and collected management fees from the school.

The slander suit Brown filed in Montgomery County alleges the parents had made comments “that give the clear but false impression that Dr. Brown is corrupt, incompetent, and possibly criminal.”

All of these cases are now on hold, pending the outcome of the government’s case against Brown — which will determine whether these “impressions” of corruption and criminality are, indeed, false. To date, Brown has been acquitted on six charges — which leaves 54 others undecided.

Brown’s slander lawsuits were clearly filed in hopes of silencing detractors, seeing as they were filed just as Brown’s school (and company) were being investigated by both state and federal agencies. Whether or not the charges against Brown stick, the parents obviously had genuine concerns about the school’s co-founder. “Corrupt, incompetent and possibly criminal” seem to describe the activity federal investigators uncovered. The only thing that remains is for a jury to decide whether the “possibly criminal” acts are genuinely criminal. But while that drags on, Smith and five other parents are living their lives in the shadow of looming legal action — something a strong anti-SLAPP law would likely have neutralized months or years earlier.

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Comments on “Pennsylvania Lawmakers Move Forward On Anti-SLAPP Legislation”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I read that some country (forgot which one, IIRC it was in Europe) solves this problem as follows: the loser pays the winner’s costs. But these costs come from a table, so they are always reasonable.

Does anyone remember which country I’m talking about, and the details? IIRC, I saw it in a comment here on Techdirt some years ago.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Loser pays” prevails in most of the world. Downside is, that none of the 3000 a day lung cancer victims in USA alone, would be able to try a shot at Philip Morris this way. That is why you rarely hear about successful tobacco lawsuit in Europe, despite the very same actors and very same dirty tricks.

Reform is still needed.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I’d take that tradeoff. Philip Morris could have (and would have) been taken down in other ways. The tide that turned to make the class action work was also lifting other boats. Also, the class in that class action was a bunch of states, not individuals. Loser pays may not have been an unacceptable risk when it’s spread over 46 states.

KRA says:

Legal reform

I live in CT and there are the same number of lawyers per capita as there are prisoners per capita. Coincidence? I think not.

Without frivolous litigation and a long list of legal offenses and crimes, what would all the Connecticut lawyers do? Dig ditches? Flip burgers? Feed on the worms and decaying organisms at the ocean floor? Oh, wait…

Androgynous Cowherd says:

Be prepared for the bad guys' next move

Anyone else here thinking that a lobby group for large corporations, perpetrators of control fraud, and assorted other white-collar ne’er-do-wells will spawn some shell organization with a name like “Center for Responsible Free Speech” and push for the creation of a weak federal anti-SLAPP law that will pre-empt strong state laws?

Kristen says:

Re: Be prepared for the bad guys' next move

God I hope not.

It seems to me that most SLAPPers are small local business owners guided by their egos. When that guy wrote the “United Breaks Guitars” song, the bean counters at United didn’t sue him. Of course, there are always exceptions but on the whole I think corporations understand the Streisand effect better than the local yokels.

But I can certainly imagine lawyers coming out vigorously against meaningful anti-SLAPP laws. I am presently a defendant in a SLAPP suit, and whatever ultimately gets decided in my case I can tell you that the only “winners” will be the lawyers.

Angelique Smith (profile) says:

Thank you

Mr. Cushing,

My name is Angelique Smith and I am the woman mentioned in your blog.
I want to thank you for bringing attention to the proposed Anti-SLAPP Legislation: Pennsylvania State Senate Bill 1095, introduced by Senator Larry Farnese.

There is so much more to this case, and I am pleased that you have touched on additional elements.

We are innocent parents caught between the battle of two companies and their control of a public charter school.
Terrorized by Dorothy June Brown and her attorneys, and manipulated by k12 Inc, a for-profit, publicly traded, $900 million dollar a year educational management company.

A company that feared losing their cash cow so much they did not care about hurting innocent families. After the lawsuit was filed they contacted some of the parents expressing concern, and promising to help.

k12 Inc. NEVER contacted myself nor my husband. K12 Inc. never concerned themselves with the safety of my daughter whose was put in danger because of this lawsuit. The FERPA complaint I made to the school in 2009 was NEVER investigated.

On December of 2013 the lawyer for k12 Inc. told me, and I quote:

“All we were concerned about was the school.”

Again, I graciously thank you for taking the time to investigate and report the facts.

This post is my opinion.


Angelique Smith

Christine says:

Agora keeping promised funds to families

After having problems with Agora cyber school not providing us with promised internet reimbersment funding I decided to research into Agora Complaints. I just discovered the founder Dorothy Brown put a law suit against homeschool families. I am withdrawling my kids and finding another cyber school. That was distasteful for a cyber school founder to put concerned parents under the gun of the law the way the founder of Agora did. I have been having a terrible time getting them to repay me for promised expenses we endured for internet service and ink for the printer. If this school system is targeting parents of the children they teach, I do not want anything to do with such an organization. Our school district sends Agora $25,000 a year for both of my children and Agora won’t send us Ink cartridges or pay our $35 per month internet reimberssment they promised.

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