ACLU Defends Washtenaw Woman Sued for Speaking Out

July 08, 2004

DETROIT— The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan will defend a Washtenaw County resident from a SLAPP suit (“Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”) brought against her by a gravel pit owner. The ACLU filed a motion to dismiss the case today.

“In our view, this is a case of a classic ‘SLAPP’ suit or a ‘Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation,’" said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director.  "It is designed to intimidate, deter and punish activists for exercising their First Amendment right to speak out on issues of public concern.”

In October 2003, Laurie Fromhart attended a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) hearing required before the department can grant building permits which may affect the environment.  Members of the public were invited to come forward and speak in favor of or in opposition to the permits.  Ms. Fromhart spoke against allowing the Sylvester Material Co., Inc. (SMR), owner of a large quarry operation in Bridgewater Township to excavate an area large enough to create a 50-acre lake.  Ms. Fromhart, concerned about the environmental impact on surrounding wetlands and property owners, is the spokesperson for a citizen action group, Stewards of Bridgewater, who oppose the expansion of the quarry's operations.

In November 2003, the MDEQ concluded, "The proposed lake will significantly alter the groundwater flow patterns in this area and those changes would probably adversely affect the wetland areas north and west of the lake."  SMR then voluntarily withdrew their application.  However, in May 2004, prior to re-submitting its application, SMR filed a SLAPP suit against Ms. Fromhart, alleging slander and libel, based on the comments she made at the public hearings and letters she had written to public officials. The strategic timing of the lawsuit appears to be a blatant attempt to silence Ms. Fromhart from speaking out again on the new application.

 “I’ve realized that this is nothing more than a scare tactic to prevent me from criticizing this project or any other projects involving this company,” said Ms. Fromhart “It’s hard to believe that a citizen can be sued over speaking out at a public hearing for trying to protect the environment.”

Three years ago, the ACLU of Michigan helped to successfully defend a similar case in Macomb County when a steel company sued a citizens group when the group complained to the authorities about the loud noise emanating from the factory. 

Such lawsuits are not uncommon.  A University of Denver Political Litigation Project study concluded that the accelerating growth in the number of SLAPP lawsuits poses "a major threat to involved citizens."

ACLU Cooperating attorney, Daniel Quick of the law firm Dickinson Wright said, “These suits end up bankrupting activist groups and concerned citizens by forcing them to hire attorneys to defend themselves, and chills essential free speech rights. It’s a pleasure to volunteer my time on this case to help Ms. Fromhart in order to ensure that her speech and petition rights are protected.”

In addition to the litigation, the ACLU is working to introduce “Anti-SLAPP” legislation to make corporations responsible for an activist’s attorney fees and costs if the activist wins or the case is dismissed.  Twenty-two states, including Indiana, Georgia, Tennessee, California, Pennsylvania, and New York, already have anti-SLAPP suit laws.

C.J. Peters, a Wayne State University law professor, and Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director are working on the case in addition to Michael J. Steinberg and Daniel Quick.

To read the brief, go to:  http://aclumich.org/sites/default/files/file/pdf/briefs/sylvestermaterial%20v.%20fromhartbrief.pdf