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Lima lawmaker wants greater protection of free speech

Special to the Legal News

Published: October 12, 2017

Despite free-speech protection afforded Americans by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, there exist legal maneuvers that effectively chill an individual's free expression, a northwest Ohio lawmaker said earlier this week upon introduction of a bill to counter that very practice.

Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, proposed Senate Bill 206, titled the Ohio Citizen Participation Act, a bill meant to protect Ohioans from frivolous lawsuits that stifle public discourse.

"First Amendment rights are foundational to a free and functioning society," Huffman said in a prepared statement. "This legislation takes important steps to ensure that citizens' speech and expression can never be quashed by legal tricks and protracted courtroom battles."

Huffman's bill is modeled primarily after a similar law enacted in Texas.

Under the bill, in the event that an individual is sued for expressing an opinion about a matter of public interest, the individual can seek a "fast-track" process to dispose of the case in a few months as opposed to the regular process which involves extended litigation, time and considerable expense.

Both sides would be permitted to appeal rulings made under the act, Huffman explained.

The bill would cover "protected communication," including the following examples of written or oral statements or communication:

• Aimed at procuring any governmental or electoral action, result, or outcome;

• Made to a member of the General Assembly or to any officer or employee of the government of the United States, this state or a political subdivision of this state, regarding a matter reasonably of concern to the governmental entity involved;

• Made in direct connection with an issue under consideration by an executive, legislative, or judicial body of the United States, this state, or a political subdivision of this state, or any other official proceeding authorized by law;

• Made in direct connection with an issue of public interest;

• Between individuals who join together to collectively express, promote, pursue or defend common interests.

A coalition of citizen, media and advocacy groups has backed a model bill for more than three years, according to a press release.

"Court proceedings can provide a tool for abusers to exert and re-establish control over a domestic violence survivor long after the relationship has ended," Ohio Domestic Violence Network Executive Director Nancy Neylon said in the prepared statement. "Abusive or retaliatory litigation includes the misuse of court proceedings by abusers to control, harass, intimidate, coerce and/or impoverish survivors."

The coalition found numerous other examples in which the law would apply, ranging from landlords trying to prevent tenants from posting critical comments on the Internet to citizen groups being sued by large companies for protesting business practices.

Additionally, SB 206 would protect anonymous speech on the internet by requiring website operators and internet service providers to inform potential defendants of requests to identify them by name or IP address.

Huffman said citizens would receive notice of such demands and have an opportunity to contest subpoenas and other identification requests.

SB 206, which has cosponsorship support of four fellow senators, awaits committee referral.

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