Tuesday, July 23, 2019
IN MY OPINION (Column)
By JON COUPAL
Democrats pay lip service to the First Amendment and claim to encourage political engagement but, in reality, their desire is to silence all views but their own. Last week, a Court of Appeal made them pay for their hypocrisy.
In 2017, one of the most hotly contested political issues in California was the imposition of a huge increase in the state’s car and gas taxes. While the effort to reverse that tax increase failed when voters—victims of a highly deceptive campaign—rejected Proposition 6 last year, the political fallout from that tax increase reverberated in other ways.
For example, as a result of his vote for the tax hike, then-Sen. Josh Newman was the subject of a successful recall campaign. That effort was supported by a number of grassroots organizations such as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Reform California as well as the California Republican Party.
To say that the Democrats were angry at the recall of one of their own would be an understatement. In retaliation, they arranged for the filing of a lawsuit against HJTA, the CRP and the firm that managed the recall petitions alleging that somehow voters who signed the recall petition were fooled into thinking they were signing a petition for the repeal of the gas tax.
The allegations in the complaint were silly on their face. Recall petitions are clearly identified as such and even include a prominent statement from the official who is being recalled. Only someone completely oblivious would fail to understand what they were signing.
It was abundantly clear from the outset that the lawsuit was not about remedying any real harm. It was about punishing those who challenge the all-powerful Democratic establishment in California and chilling any future recall efforts by forcing those who exercise their right to recall to pay large amounts of legal fees.
Lawsuits such as these are called SLAPP actions—which is an acronym that stands for strategic litigation against public participation. They are intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.
But filing SLAPP lawsuits against an individual or organization for engaging in protected political activity is a dangerous thing. California, like many states, has an anti-SLAPP statute designed to stop such frivolous legal action dead in its tracks.
Because the Democrats’ complaint sought to punish First Amendment activities such as petition circulating and speaking to voters, HJTA filed a special motion to strike the complaint under the anti-SLAPP statute. While the trial judge initially ruled for HJTA in his tentative ruling, he reversed himself to permit the plaintiffs to add a claim for “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
Again, seeking to resolve SLAPP litigation quickly, the statute provides that a denial of an anti-SLAPP motion is immediately appealable.
Last week, the Court of Appeal issued its decision reversing the trial court and directing the lower court to grant the anti-SLAPP motion and dismiss the case. In a succinct ruling, the court stated that HJTA “is entitled to the grant of its special motion to strike because Plaintiffs’ lawsuit arose out of Jarvis’s protected petitioning activity, and Plaintiffs failed to meet their burden to establish a probability of prevailing on their fraud claim.”
We hope that the outcome of this litigation serves as a wakeup call to the majority party in California. They may have virtually carte blanche political power, but they can’t silence either our voices or our constitutional rights.
Copyright 2019, Metropolitan News Company