Millions of Americans share their thoughts on Facebook and other social media outlets every day, confident in their Constitutionally protected right to speak freely. But as Paonia environmental consultant Pete Kolbenschlag recently learned, the First Amendment alone has not always offered protection from frivolous lawsuits — also known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) — which essentially use expensive legal proceedings to silence critics.
Kolbenschlag’s ordeal reminds us of the importance of defending our free speech rights. It also explains why Colorado legislators of both parties voted nearly unanimously during their last session to adopt anti-SLAPP legislation.
For those who haven’t followed the story, Kolbenschlag was sued for libel in February 2017 by Houston-based oil and gas company SG Interests (SGI), after he noted in the Post Independent’s online comment section that SGI had been fined for trying to “rig bid prices and rip off American taxpayers.”
The U.S. Justice Department did, in fact, investigate both SGI and Denver-based Gunnison Energy Corp. for colluding to limit bidding on natural gas leases near the Ragged Mountain Wilderness Area. The companies didn’t admit guilt, but they agreed to pay more than $1 million to settle the case.
The initial District Court judge found Kolbenschlag’s comments about SGI to be “substantially true” and dismissed the company’s libel suit. The case dragged on, however, while SGI appealed that ruling. Last month, Colorado’s Court of Appeals again found the appeal to be “groundless and frivolous,” and upheld the lower court’s dismissal. Meanwhile, though, Kolbenschlag’s life has been disrupted by this costly, stressful and time-consuming process, which lasted more than two years.
Colorado’s new anti-SLAPP law, which took effect July 1, aims to prevent this kind of legal harassment by speeding dismissals of lawsuits deemed to be baseless, and making it easier for defendants to recover their costs and attorneys’ fees.
Thanks to our state leaders, and to concerned citizens like Kolbenschlag who testified in support of the law, Colorado is now the 29th U.S. state to adopt anti-SLAPP legislation. Because of their efforts, far fewer citizens are likely to be sued for speaking out on public issues.