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December 28, 2020

Program Spotlight - Environmental Summit

Are your Public Participation Rights Being "SLAPP"-ed?

Co-sponsored by the First Amendment Foundation and the ABA CRSJ Environmental Justice Committee

Litigation to silence, intimidate, and censor is on the rise. Known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP), these cases are a way for plaintiffs to drown critics in legal fees and court proceedings. Anti-SLAPP statutes are being developed to protect people from lawsuits involving speech on a matter of public concern by affording a party the opportunity to file a motion to strike the case giving the plaintiff the burden of actually showing that they have evidence that would result in a verdict in their favor.

On March 28th, Barry Law School, located at 6441 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando, Florida, hosted its Annual Environmental Law Summit, featuring keynote speaker Penelope Canan, attorney Richard J. Ovelman, and law professor Rachel Deming, who is the director of the Environmental and Earth Law Clinic at Barry Law School. The summit addresses SLAPP suits in the United States and Canada and will from 8:30 am to 11:30 am.

Speakers at the summit discussed the case of Maggy Hurchalla, who is the sister of the late U.S. Attorney General, Janet Reno, and a 77-year old grandmother. Hurchalla’s case is an example of SLAPP suits targeting individuals here in Florida. Hurchalla voiced her concerns to local government about a mining project that she alleged could destroy wetlands. Her actions resulted in her being sued for tortious interference. At trial the judge failed to properly instruct the jury of her First Amendment rights, leading to a $4.3 million judgment against her. Hurchalla has since appealed. With the help of national and Florida-based organizations, she is fighting against the obvious chill the environmental advocacy in Florida felt after such a judgment. Ovelman serves as counsel for Maggy Hurchalla, the target of a SLAPP suit, and has practiced constitutional law, including First Amendment law and defamation cases.

Canan has extensive experience in both researching and advocating for issues to protect the environment around the world. Throughout her career, she has been awarded the Frederick Buttel Award for her Distinguished Career Contribution to Environmental Sociology, been listed on the United Nations Environment Program, under its “Montreal Protocol Who’s Who”, a way to honor those who are making the Montreal Protocol a global environmental success story. Within her award-winning career, Canan is one of the co-founders of the expression “SLAPP” along with fellow Professor Rock Pring, who wrote their 1995 book, SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out.

The program was presented by Barry Law School’s Environmental Responsibility Committee, Environmental & Earth Law Journal, Environmental Law Society, and Student Animal Legal Defense Fund and co-sponsored by the First Amendment Foundation and the ABA’ Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. 

More on the ABA CRSJ Environmental Justice Committee →