ACLU Protects Those Who Speak Out in Washtenaw
DETROIT— The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan announced today that a SLAPP suit (“Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”) against a Washtenaw County woman has been dismissed while another against a Washtenaw man has just begun.
The lawsuit against Laurie Fromhart, a Bridgewater Township resident who had spoken out an a Department of Environment Quality (DEQ) public meeting, has been dismissed. Ms. Fromhart is concerned about the environmental impact on surrounding wetlands and property owners and spoke in opposition to 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.
"This type of lawsuit is often filed to harass individuals, to try and prevent or punish ordinary people from speaking up. While the lawsuit has now been voluntarily dismissed and Ms. Fromhart is vindicated, the fact remains that the mere filing of such lawsuits chills free speech and takes a terrible toll on the individuals wrongly sued,” said Dan Quick, the ACLU cooperating attorney who handled the case.
Upon hearing that the case against her is finally over, Ms. Fromhart said, “Although I am very pleased and relieved that the suit has been dismissed, I'm afraid it will have a lasting effect on my ability to speak out.”
The SLAPP suit against Ms. Fromhart, alleging slander and libel, was based on the comments she made at the public hearings and letters she had written to public officials. The strategic timing of the lawsuit appeared to have been a blatant attempt to silence Ms. Fromhart from speaking out again on the new application.
In a second case that the ACLU is defending William Riney of Ypsilanti Township who is being sued by two former Ypsilanti officials, William Winters and T.R. Stumbo, for two articles that appeared in Riney's newsletter called the "Liberty News."
Bill Riney is an environmental activist who sought the recall of these elected officials when he was unsuccessful in defeating the building of a proposed incinerator. There is reason to believe that the purpose of the lawsuit is to keep Mr. Riney from speaking out any further.
The lawsuit for alleged defamation, libel and invasion of privacy is based on two articles published in Liberty News, a newsletter distributed in Ypsilanti Township. One of the articles -- discussing Winters' past association with racists -- is based on an old Ypsilanti Press article and is true. Another article suggests that the present township clerk, Brenda Stumbo, the niece of former clerk T.R. Stumbo, may have taken the taxes from "T.R.'s Place" off the township books as a favor to her uncle and mentor.
"This suit is an attempt by these officials to intimidate and silence a political opponent," said Tom Weider, the ACLU cooperating attorney handling Mr. Riney’s case.
Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director added, "SLAPP suits are designed to intimidate, deter and punish activists for exercising their First Amendment right to speak out on issues of public concern.”
Such lawsuits are not uncommon which is why the ACLU is working to introduce “Anti-SLAPP” legislation to allows for attorney fees and costs to be covered 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 worked on the Fromhart case in addition to Daniel Quick.
To read the ACLU motion, go to: http://aclumich.org/sites/default/files/file/pdf/briefs/sylvestermaterial%20v.%20fromhartbrief.pdf