Individuals in this country should feel free to openly express their views without fear of being dragged into court. Although free speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, apprehension over voicing opinions appears to be increasing in this country.

One pending piece of legislation that addresses this issue is Ohio Senate Bill 215 that was introduced last fall and now is under review in the state Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, is known as the Ohio Citizen Participation Act and would create a legal framework for judges to follow if a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation – known as SLAPP – ends up in civil court. Right now, motions to dismiss libel and slander claims with no grounds could go on for years through the court process with numerous appeals of judicial rulings.

As a news organization, our mission is to report on matters of local government, seek reactions to issues, promote public dialogue and allow our readers to express their opinions whether we agree or not. All these actions would be protected by SB 215.

Supporters have also said that SB 215 provides protection from lawsuits for domestic violence victims who speak out against their abusers.

Anti-SLAPP laws are being considered across the country, with 36 states already approving this protective legislation.

The goal of SB 215 is to encourage open discussions and discourage the use of lawsuits to silence opinions by burying people under an avalanche of frivolous and potentially costly court actions.

We strongly believe that our democracy depends on the free flow of public dialogue about local, state and national issues. This includes journalists reporting on issues as well as ordinary citizens speaking out during a public meeting or at a protest on the streets.

The bill has bipartisan backing from the Ohio News Media Association, ACLU, Americans for Prosperity, the Ohio Association of Broadcasters, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and domestic violence advocacy groups. Like these and other groups, we don’t want to see baseless lawsuits be used as a weapon against free speech.

Anti-SLAPP laws put these meritless lawsuits on a fast track, reducing the court battle from years to months, and have a provision where the loser pays. According to the ONMA, that means if the court decides the alleged defamation or libel has no merit, the defendant’s attorney fees are paid by the other side.

Ohio’s bill was modeled after legislation approved in California and Texas, considered the most effective anti-SLAPP laws in the U.S. ONMA points out that the bill does not alter the legal definition of defamation or libel. That means victims of such actions still have the power to file lawsuits.

Ohio’s proposed law has a provision that gives protection to citizens in the event the plaintiff tries to file a lawsuit in a different state with no anti-SLAPP laws.

We encourage our state lawmakers to seriously study this proposal and then take swift action to approve it. There is no room for meritless lawsuits used as a weapon to suppress free speech and promote financial hardship.

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