The EU Commission has proposed a Directive deterring strategic lawsuits against public participation of activists and journalists, conceiving a new line of defense for people committed to climate issues.
Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPPs) are abusive legal procedures generally started by wealthy individuals or entities in order to suffocate the voice of activists, journalists, and watchdogs who, by carrying out their work in the public interest, would harm the economic and political interests of the plaintiffs. Most times these suits are based on demands of economic compensation for alleged defamation or violations of freedom of expression. Though such requests are hardly ever well-founded and destined for successful outcomes, the frustrating length and the excessive costs of the proceedings nevertheless turn out to be very useful to discourage critics to speak out. For these reasons indeed, SLAPPs are likely to end up with accused subjects accepting to apologize for their “intrusive activities” or to correct their statements. It goes without saying that this dismaying trend represents a massive barrier to bottom-up public forms of participation, leading to incommensurable threats to the proper functioning of any democratic system.
Against this backdrop, last month the EU Commission proposed a Directive dealing with SLAPPs in civil matters with cross-border implications, meaning those suits regarding two or more Member States. The proposal contains some interesting provisions intended to deter these abusive proceedings. Firstly, under this Directive the judges would be allowed to dismiss and archive demands being evidently ill-founded. Furthermore, it also provides the possibility to impose to plaintiffs the payment of damages to respondents, as well as the condemnation to other dissuasive penalties, whether economic or not. Finally, the EU Commission is working to draft a further document addressed to all Member States, urging them to independently adopt laws complementary to those established by the Directive, especially by penalising merely domestic SLAPPs in all types of proceedings, not only civil matters.
The approval of such a legal instrument would be a turning point for facilitating the people’s participation into the public space, which has been limited and hindered too many times. Amongst the subjects targeted by SLAPPs, environmental activists appear to be a category particularly affected. Throughout the last decades, abusive suits against groups advocating for the respect of environmental rights have exponentially multiplied worldwide, from South Africa to Kosovo, from United States to the United Kingdom. The common feature of all these proceedings consisted of unfounded legal cases grounded on commercial defamation brought against NGOs which spoke out and uncovered plaintiffs’ misdeeds against the environment. Therefore, given the large extent to which SLAPPs have been resorted to, the EU Commission’s initiative is highly commendable and its approval should immediately become a priority on the agenda of the EU Parliament and of the EU Council. At the same time, it is equally important that provisions of this nature are implemented beyond the European Union’s framework too, as it has been shown how SLAPPs represent a global threat. In a democratic order, no institution can reasonably allow powerful and unscrupulous people to brandish laws as if they were weapons to be used against members of the civil society. Conversely, it is pivotal to preserve the role of legal instruments, intended to level the playfield across the entire society and to enable everyone to demand justice, independently from the economic resources each citizen can rely on.