17. RICO & SLAPPs JOIN FORCES TO FIGHT THE FIRST
In 1970, Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced
and Corrupt Organizations Act to create a powerful new weapon against organized
crime. Unfortunately the targets of many RICO suits have not been mobsters, rather
they increasingly are political activists and reporters. It's not the mob on trial
here, but the First Amendment. The chilling effect such suits have on the defendants'
free speech rights is unquestionable. According to Anthony Califa, the ACLU's
legislative counsel, RICO suits cause serious damage to the defendant long before
the case ever gets to trial.
An early, non-mob use of RICO was found in
the Christic Institute suit against contragate targets. However, the most extensive
use of RICO has been against antiabortion protesters, such as Operation Rescue.
Indeed, RICO has created some of the oddest bedfellows in recent history, as the
ACLU and the alternative press have rushed to the aid of their usual foes.
number of anti-choice protesters have been tried and convicted under the loosely
structured law, and many more have been stigmatized as "racketeers"
and been forced to seek expensive legal counsel, no matter how frivolous the allegations.
Orange County Post, a 2,700-circulation weekly near Newburgh, New York was the
target of a RICO suit brought by the Town of West Hartford, Connecticut. The reason
for the suit was an editorial, titled "Northern Red Necks," which defended
the First Amendment rights of anti-abortion protestors.
It now appears RICO
will be more widely used to go after other demonstrators such as nuclear activists
and environmental groups.
Meanwhile, those interested in intimidating activists have found yet
another ally in SLAPPs. According to law professor George Pring and
sociologist Penelope Canan of the University of Denver, SLAPPs -- Strategic
Lawsuits Against Public Participation -- are a new way to suppress political
debate. The two professors, who coined the acronym SLAPP, studied 100
cases in which individuals and advocacy groups were sued for taking
part in political activity -- addressing either a government body or
the electorate on an issue of public concern. They found that SLAPPs
are spreading across the nation with a message that is both simple and
alarming: If you speak out, you risk going to court.
a citizen may be sued for something as innocuous as writing a critical letter
to a newspaper. A homemaker living near Santa Cruz, California, wrote a letter
to her local paper complaining about a proposed development; the developer sued
her for $3 million, charging that he had been libeled.
While more than 80
percent of such cases fail in court, SLAPPers are not expected to be deterred
since they know their suits cause their targets considerable anxiety and expense
... and to think twice before speaking out.
The unintended use of the RICO
law and the increasing use of SLAPPs are compromising our most cherished civil
liberty -- free expression - yet they have been virtually ignored by the mainstream
press and are practically unknown to the general public.
SSU CENSORED RESEARCHER:
SOURCE: VILLAGE VOICE 842 Broadway, New York, NY 10003
TITLE: "RICO STALKS THE PRESS"
AUTHOR: NAT HENTOFF
SOURCE: UTNE READER (Reprinted from THE SANTA CRUZ SUN) 1624 Harmon
Place, Minneapolis, MN 55403
DATE: November/December 1989
TITLE: "A NEW WAY TO INTIMIDATE ACTIVISTS"
AUTHOR: EVE PELL
COMMENTS: The RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations
Act) story posed a problem for the news media according to author Nat
Hentoff. Noting that there was very little attention paid to the issue,
Hentoff added "Ordinarily the press would benefit from exposing
dangers to its independence but because the story was connected to Operation
Rescue (an anti-abortion group), the press, largely pro-choice, ignored
it." On the other hand, Eve Pell's story reveals what can happen
when the press finally does put an issue on the national agenda. Pell
first tried to alert the public to the issue of harassment lawsuits
in 1981 with an article in The Nation but despite a growing epidemic
of such lawsuits, the phenomenon went basically unreported. She stayed
with the issue however, and with the support of the Center for Investigative
Reporting, in San Francisco, SLAPPs (an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits
Against Public Participation) finally took off in 1990 "after nearly
a decade of silence on the issue." Since then Pell and the Center
"researched stories for MacNeil/Lehrer and 20/20, and what a difference
that made. Following the MacNeil/Lehrer broadcast, the two professors
who are national experts on SLAPPs received more than 600 calls and
letters, many from the press. Stories appeared in Newsweek and the Wall
Street Journal as well as on the CBS Evening News." Pell also noted
that in 1990 she wrote stories on the issue for Common Cause and California
Lawyer. "The California Lawyer story was read by a state senator
who became so outraged by the threat to free speech and the democratic
process that he introduced legislation that would filter SLAPPs out
of the court system. Other states are also looking at ways to eliminate