Bully tactics?, SLAPP suits as intimidation
Third, SLAPP suits are always characterized by a flimsy, frivolous or even non-existent cause of action. They will have done their damage irrespective of, and before, the outcome of the suit is decided. The question of legal tenability, and in these cases, its absence is really not one of any relevance. The real damage is done by forcing defendants to bear the trouble (monetary and otherwise) with preparing and mounting the legal response/defense itself, rather than by the litigation’s ultimate success or failure. A little amusing then that in the latest instance, which I describe later in this post, it is a law student, presently in law school and writing for a legal blog who finds herself on the receiving end of such threats.
Defamation is a classic tool by which contrary opinions are sought to be silenced by those in (political, social or corporate) power. Rajeev Dhavan argues here that defamation is becoming an increasingly popular tool by which the “politics of exposé” and whistleblowers participating in it are being threatened. [SLAPPs in India have arisen on the back of other causes of action as well. See, for instance, the case of S. Khushboo v. Kanniammal andFrontline discussing it.] Lawrence Liang details a number of older instances in which defamation has been used in Indian courts to silence speech here.
Much more recently, Tata Sons Ltd. v. Greenpeace International, involved intellectual property and defamation claims in a game designed to bring attention to the threat to Olive Ridley turtles from developmental activity in Orissa. The IIPM saga that rose to prominence in February this year is another instance of such litigation. It is also one that carries the added ignominy that a university, whose function one would presume is to foster critical thinking and the ability to constructively respond to criticism, would sue for defamation against criticism and use the state apparatus to employ opaque means by which to silence the allegedly offending content online [see here and here]. IIPM also demonstrates how SLAPPs will involve what have been called “creative ways” to abuse of process: more than one suit can be filed, and they can be filed in more than one jurisdiction or in jurisdictions in which it is difficult for the target of the suit to appear or defend him or herself.
On Attempts at Silencing Academic Opinion
While the Activist v. Corporation trope is by now a tired one, it appears that the incidence of SLAPP proceedings, both civil and criminal, against commentators and academics are on the rise:
Ajay Shah’s case has been a well-documented one [see here and here], and one in which the Bombay High Court did not appear to appreciate the SLAPP dynamic. Closer to home, Shamnad Basheer [see here and here] a professor at NUJS and founder of SpicyIP saw a defamation SLAPP suit for what appears to be an exercise in only academic analysis.
As of the 21 of this month, it was reported that a student contributor at the same blog, Aparajita Lath faces similarly suspect allegations of defamation from a newspaper [see here and here]. Here is a case not of Activist v. Corporation or Whistleblower v. Government, but of Academic Opinion v. Press. There is a special and truly unfortunate irony in the press having recourse to tools like the defamation suit, and even more egregiously, the criminal complaint.
Why We Worry
A number of rights of the target are ordinarily affected by SLAPP suits. In what was asignificant case for the United Kingdom involving a defamation suit brought by McDonald’s against two authors of a pamphlet criticizing it, the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’) recognized in Steel and Morris v. United Kingdom a number of the following rights: