The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

The historical evolution of SLAPP in the United States illustrates the tension between citizen activism and legal intimidation, a conflict recognized academically in the 1980s and judicially addressed in landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases defending free speech.

In the complex tapestry of a democratic society, the entanglement of citizen engagement with legal structures presents a narrative rich with history. The use of legal action to intimidate, known as Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP), has historical roots that scholars trace back to the 10th century. However, it was not until the 1980s that the acronym “SLAPP” was defined by University of Denver professors George W. Pring and Penelope Canan, heralding a new era of acknowledgment for this pernicious tactic.

The historical trajectory of SLAPPs in the United States includes a pivotal 1802 incident, where individuals decrying government corruption were countered with punitive legal action. This strategy proliferated with the ascent of political activism, serving as a weapon to silence dissenters, a dynamic explored by Pring and Canan in SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out. A particularly infamous case in Mississippi involved businessmen who filed a $3 million lawsuit for “business interference” against African American activists, a verdict initially supported by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 1982. The ultimate resolution, however, came from the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed that boycotts are a constitutionally protected form of expression, a ruling that speaks volumes in today’s debates on the misuse of rights and the perils of prioritizing individual gain over communal welfare.

The contest of legal intimidation then extended to the press, most notably in the seminal New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case. The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a robust defense of free speech, decreeing that freedoms of speech and the press offer a constitutional shield against defamation claims, except when actual malice is involved. The Court’s discernment made clear that the right to critique government cannot be contingent upon a vague charge of ‘malice.’ This landmark decision shifted the burden of proof to the plaintiff, who must now show intent to damage a legitimate, legal interest. This ruling reasserted the electorate’s capacity for critical evaluation, upholding the supremacy of collective legislation that upholds public interest above personal gain and professional stature.

Eleni Kapa-Karasavidou teaches Interculturality and Literature at the University of Ioannina, Greece. She studied Pedagogy and Mass Media at the Aristotelion University of Thessaloniki. Eleni was honoured with a scholarship by the University of Nottingham and received a Master's degree in Cultural Studies. She completed a second Master's degree in Intercultural Education and a Ph.D in Children's Literature. She was the organiser of the InterBalkan Network for Intercultural Education. She is a member of various cultural, social and scientific institutions. She has been published in various magazines and newspapers and has been honoured under the aegis of the Greek Ministry of Culture for her work.