An environmental disaster of epic proportions in the Amazon Rainforest. One of the biggest oil companies in the world (Chevron) denies it had anything to do with it. Thousands of Indigenous people suffer cancerous growths, and babies are lost in pregnancy or born with deformities because of the contamination of their soil and water with toxic chemicals. A brave human rights lawyer fighting in their corner for 25 years. A multi-billion-dollar landmark court judgment.
It has all the ingredients of a mythic hero story.
And it was. Until that multinational oil giant hired private investigators to track the lawyer’s movements, started a public smear campaign against him, and gathered literally hundreds of lawyers to obliterate him. He ended up under house arrest for over two years and has only just been freed.
This was the fate of Steven Donziger, the man who stood up to big oil, and we call that a SLAPP.
Harvard Law student @AaronRegunberg spoke with power at the rally marking the end of my 993 days of detention. Inspiring to see Law Students for Climate Accountability (@Ls4Ca) boycott Chevron law firms like @gibsondunn.— Steven Donziger (@SDonziger) May 3, 2022
"Big Law is aiding corporate crimes against humanity." pic.twitter.com/Dstwn96yeg
What Is a SLAPP?
No, not a slap (although it probably feels more like a punch to the gut). SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation and they’re what companies that are poor on ethics — but rich in cash — use to try to silence their critics.
All around the world, people speak out on injustices they see. Many do this at great personal risk. Turkish activist Osman Kavala, for example, was sentenced to life in prison for speaking out against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
While you might live in a country where it’s unlikely your government would jail you for speaking out on issues of public interest, a SLAPP is a lawsuit used by big private sector polluters and human rights’ abusers to attempt to squash those who speak out in opposition.
They are typically filed against community leaders, social activists, journalists, Indigenous leaders, and environmental defenders.
SLAPPs are baseless lawsuits. They’ve got nothing to do with justice and are uniquely designed to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these suits.
Unfortunately, they’re effective. Why? Because they can take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight in the courts. To end a SLAPP, those being falsely prosecuted “frequently agree to muzzle themselves, apologize, or ‘correct’ statements,” according to the Public Participation Project.
Even more worrying, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor — read more about Lawlor and her work here — says they “have become a global trend.”
4 Key Stats to Know About SLAPPs
- 2 in 5 people live in a country with repressed civic freedoms;
- The highest number of SLAPPs take place in Latin America;
- Nearly three-quarters of cases were brought in countries in the Global South;
- Most individuals and groups facing SLAPPs raised concerns about four sectors: mining, agriculture and livestock, logging and lumber, and palm oil.
‘SLAPPshots’ of Cases
From a congressman suing CNN, to a doggy daycare seeking a million-dollar settlement over a one-star Yelp review, here are some of the most outrageous SLAPPs from recent history.
1. A Logging Company Filed a Defamation Suit Against Malaysian Activists
SAVE Rivers — a civil society organization that supports and empowers Indigenous communities to protect their land, rivers, and watersheds in Malaysia — started #StopTheChop in 2021. The campaign argues a logging company is destroying indigenous land.
That company, Samling Plywood, turned around and sued SAVE Rivers for publishing defamatory statements. The logging company is demanding an apology from SAVE Rivers, an injunction stopping them from reporting on the issues, and a lot of money.
Malaysian timber giant Samling files US$1.18 million defamation suit against green group over logging activity The company says its business has been harmed by web posts in which advocacy group SAVE Rivers alleges the company failed ... https://t.co/kuzfGQb0qu via @goalsyearbookpic.twitter.com/oSxNURuSNs— Global Goals Yearbook (@GoalsYearbook) August 20, 2021
2. Honduran Activists Were Put Under House Arrest for Protesting a Chicken Company
On March 29, 2021, several environmental protesters were detained after a complaint from the Honduran chicken company El Cortijo. The charge? Protesting the poultry company’s connection to the pollution of a local river outside their offices.
After being placed under house arrest for almost an entire year, the SLAPP against the environmental rights defenders was dismissed in April 2022.
3. Environmental Advocates Were Sued Over a New York Times Ad
In 2001, a group of environmentalists took out a print ad in the New York Times that read: “Global Warming — How Will It End?”
The ad highlighted the causes, potential impacts, and possible solutions to climate change. Crucially, it pointed the finger at coal as a major cause of global warming.
In response, the Western Fuels Association (the big guns of the coal industry) sued the environmental group for “promulgating false and misleading statements about the impact of burning fossil fuels.”
The Wyoming district court dismissed the suit.
4. A Couple in Texas Was Charged Over Their One-Star Yelp Review
While they were on holiday in 2016, Michelle and Robert Duchouquette left their dogs and pet fish in the care of a pet boarding company, Prestigious Pets, in Dallas. When they returned, they noticed the fish’s water was cloudy because they’d been overfed. Unhappy with the service, the couple went straight onto Yelp to air their grievances. The one-star review concluded: "The company is not one I would recommend."
The company then SLAPPed them with a lawsuit that charged the Duchouquettes with defamation and a breach in the service contract’s non-disparagement clause, seeking damages up to $1 million. Prestigious Pets claimed the negative attention left their business a "shell of its former success."
The couple hired attorneys to file a motion to dismiss the case, which stated they were exercising their right to free speech by writing the negative review. The lawsuit was dismissed.
5. A Journalist Was Sued for Reporting on a Politician’s DUI
When Marc D’Amelio entered the Connecticut political race for a state senate seat, writer Nancy Chapman dug up old records of a charge for driving under the influence.
She reached out to D’Amelio for comment and ran the story on her blog, NancyOnNorwalk, shedding light on his past.
As soon as the story hit, D’Amelio sued Chapman for invasion of privacy and emotional distress. But after her counsel mounted an anti-SLAPP defense, he dropped the charges.
Are There Laws Against SLAPPs?
Yes, they’re called anti-SLAPP laws and they’re intended to prevent big companies from using courts, and potential threats of a lawsuit, to intimidate people.
For news organizations and journalists leading investigative stories, there are anti-SLAPP statutes to protect them from the financial threat of groundless defamation cases.
Under most anti-SLAPP statutes, the person being sued turns the tables by making a motion to dismiss the case because it involves a matter of public concern. The big company then has to show the probability that they will win the suit. If they can’t do that, then the suit is dismissed and in some cases, they have to pay for the defendant’s legal fees.
How Can I Help? 3 Actions You Can Take Right Now To Protect Advocacy
In the video below, Human Rights Advocate Sutharee Wannasiri shares the key lesson she has learned about fighting SLAPPs.
- Use your voice: In Sutharee Wannasiri’s words: “Continue to speak truth to power.”
- Spread the word: Share this article with your friends. As the bad Yelp review goes to show, SLAPPs can affect anyone, not just human rights lawyers on the front line of the Amazon Rainforest.
- Take a quiz: Now that you’ve schooled yourself on SLAPPs, take our quiz to see how well you know your stuff here.
This article is part of a series connected to defending advocacy and civic spaces, made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.