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Have you ever suffered an injustice and felt the need to speak out? Imagine living in a country where civil society advocates, community leaders, whistleblowers, journalists, and ordinary people can’t criticize the powerful.

This is not as far-fetched as it might seem: it is already happening all over the world. Including Nigeria. That was what Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Femi Falana, Beko Ransome Kuti, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and host of other activists suffered under Military regimes.

In a democracy, people who speak out in the public interest should not face retribution. We all have the right to speak freely on issues of public interest, protest peacefully, and petition the government, even when that means criticizing those in power.

“Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation” (SLAPPs) are a particularly dangerous form of lawsuit. SLAPPs target civil society advocates, community leaders, journalists, whistle-blowers, and everyday people who exercise their Constitutional rights. SLAPPs masquerade as ordinary civil lawsuits, but their true purpose is to silence criticism.

Judges will usually dismiss a civil lawsuit that is frivolous, but a SLAPP does not need to be successful in court to have its intended effect. The goal of a SLAPP is to retaliate against critics.

Even a meritless lawsuit can drag on for years, draining a defendant’s resources through costly and time-consuming litigation. The lawsuit can also take a toll on the defendant’s reputation and morale. In many cases, SLAPP bullies hope that the lawsuit will end in a binding settlement that muzzles the critic’s future rights to free speech.

How can you distinguish a SLAPP from an ordinary civil lawsuit? No one ever admits to filing a “SLAPP.” SLAPPs will usually be disguised as traditional personal injury cases, such as lawsuits for defamation.

However, you can generally identify a SLAPP by its tell-tale signs:

1.TARGETS PROTECTED CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS SUCH AS FREE SPEECH AND PRESS: Does the lawsuit target activity that is clearly a constitutionally protected form of free speech, peaceful protest, or petitioning of the government?

  1. EXPLOITS A POWER IMBALANCE: Is the plaintiff apparently trying to exploit its economic advantage to put pressure on the defendant?
  2. THREATENS TO BANKRUPT THE DEFENDANT: Are the remedies sought unusually aggressive or disproportionate to the conduct targeted?
  3. ATTEMPTS TO REMAIN IN COURT AS LONG AS POSSIBLE: Is the plaintiff engaged in procedural manoeuvres that appear intended to drag out the case or drive-up costs, such as pursuing appeals with little prospect of success?

5 CASTS A WIDE NET: Do the lawsuit target individuals as well as the organizations for which they work? Is the lawsuit part of a wider public relations offensive designed to bully or intimidate critics?

  1. FOLLOWS A PATTERN OF SERIAL BULLYING: Does the plaintiff have a history of using SLAPPs or threatening legal action in order to scare critics into silence?

We must show is commitments to ending the threat that SLAPPs pose to civil society, free speech, and democracy more broadly. If SLAPP bullies have their way, the impacts of their lawsuits could ripple through society, creating a chilling effect on free speech.

People would stop criticizing the powerful for fear of retaliation. Public interest advocates would choose to stay silent, rather than to speak truth to power. We must defend our rights to speak out, to criticize, to engage, and to protest peacefully. Because democracy needs dissent.



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