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ACLU Defends South Kingstown Resident Against Political SLAPP Suit

Posted: November 27, 2006|Category: Free Speech

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Citing the important free speech issues involved in the case, the ACLU of Rhode Island has today filed a response and counter-claim on behalf of Jonathan Daly-LaBelle, a South Kingstown resident who was sued for defamation by a political candidate, Andrew Bilodeau, a day before this month’s elections. Bilodeau’s suit alleged that Daly-LaBelle defamed him and violated state campaign finance laws by disseminating a political flier that was critical of Bilodeau’s campaign. 

The six-page response filed today by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Karen Davidson asks that the lawsuit be dismissed under the state’s SLAPP suit statute, arguing that the suit was “brought with an intent to harass Daly-LaBelle and otherwise inhibit his exercise” of First Amendment rights. The response further asks that Daly-LaBelle be awarded compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys’ fees as authorized by that statute. SLAPP suits (“Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation”) refer to lawsuits brought to chill people from exercising their freedom of speech on matters of public concern.

The issue arose as the result of a brochure that Daly-LaBelle disseminated the week before the election, where he wrote that “Bilodeau claimed no expenses on his state-required campaign finance report, despite numerous ads and literature put out by his campaign – undercutting his campaign theme of fiscal responsibility and open government.” In writing this, Daly-LaBelle relied on accurate news reports indicating that Bilodeau had not listed any expenses on his October campaign finance report, although he subsequently filed an amended report shortly before the election. Bilodeau’s suit initially claimed, falsely, that Daly-LaBelle’s flier violated campaign finance laws, and further sought to bar Daly-LaBelle from distributing his flier, but a judge denied that request.

Concerned about the use of SLAPP suits to try to stifle public debate on a variety of issues, the ACLU of Rhode Island has succeeded in getting a number of similar suits dismissed since an anti-SLAPP statute was enacted in 1995. In the first such case handled by the ACLU, the R.I. Supreme Court ordered dismissal of a defamation suit brought against North Kingstown resident Nancy Hsu Fleming for critical statements she made about a private landfill. Shortly thereafter, the ACLU also helped the South Kingstown Neighborhood Congress in a suit filed against it for public comments its members made against a local developer’s activities.

ACLU attorney Davidson said today: “Mr. Bilodeau’s lawsuit was a clear effort to deter Mr. Daly-LaBelle from engaging in constitutionally protected political speech in a hotly-contested election. The SLAPP suit statute was enacted to prohibit precisely this type of litigation, and we are hopeful for a quick dismissal of the suit.” Daly-LaBelle added: “I believe that the comments I made are accurate and that this lawsuit is an attempt to intimidate me from speaking out on political issues.”

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