Attempt to use “SLAPP” statute slapped down

October 25, 2011

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has rejected a northwestern Minnesota farmer’s attempt to use Minnesota’s often-overlooked anti-“SLAPP” statute to put an end to a lawsuit that was filed against him after he refused to let an oil-pipeline company enter his property.

“SLAPP” stands for “strategic litigation against public participation.”  Anti-SLAPP laws let defendants file motions to dismiss lawsuits that are filed in response to citizens’ attempts to influence governmental projects.  Classic examples are when people get sued for speaking at a public meeting or for passing out leaflets critical of a development project.  Blogging about government might be protected too, but that remains to be seen.

Few lawyers even know the anti-SLAPP law exists.  The theory behind the law is that if people can get sued for speaking out for or against development projects, we’ll all be chilled into silence and in the end there will be no freedom of speech.

But speech was not at issue in the northwestern Minnesota case.  The farmer placed hay bales on his property in an attempt to hinder the pipeline company’s access to the Alberta Clipper pipeline, which is being built to deliver oil from Canada to the Twin Ports.  The farmer’s argument was that because the pipeline company was a public-service corporation, the company essentially was part of the government — and the hay bales were designed to procure favorable governmental action.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals would have none of it, and it let the case against the farmer go forward.  Similar cases around the country generally stress what the purpose of SLAPP laws is generally understood to be:  to ensure freedom of speech.

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