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Independence from SLAPP suit welcome

July 08, 2007|By LYN WIDMYER

The Fourth of July came early this year.

On April 27, to be exact.

That is the day Circuit Court Judge Christopher Wilkes confirmed that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution still applies in Jefferson County, W.Va.

The First Amendment states "Congress shall make no lawabridgingthe right of the peopleto petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Our Founding Fathers felt very strongly that people should be able to express their concerns to government officials without fear of reprisals. The First Amendment recognizes public participation in government is absolutely essential in a democracy. For more than 200 years, court after court has upheld the right of citizens to speak openly to their government officials on matters of government.

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Jefferson County, W.Va., developers Herb Jonkers and Gene Capriotti opposed citizens' First Amendment right to testify against their development projects.

They filed suit in 2004 against citizens who asked government officials to disapprove subdivision applications submitted by Jonkers and Capriotti. Richard Latterell and other neighbors voiced their opposition to the Jefferson County Planning Commission and the Public Sewer District.

Jonkers and Capriotti then accused opponents of "interference with business expectancy and conspiracy" and sued the neighbors for $2.1 million dollars.

I don't know about you, but that amount of money way exceeds my Master Card limit.

In April, Judge Wilkes dismissed the lawsuit. Judge Wilkes found no proof that the citizens who testified against the Jonkers-Capriotti development caused economic harm. The developers themselves helped the judge reach this conclusion. When asked if the actions of the opponents caused him to lose any sales contracts for the land, Herb Jonkers replied, "No."

But then I believe the lawsuit never really was about money. I believe it was intended to scare people into silence. Cases like this are known as SLAPP suits, or "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.' They are meant to make people think twice before opposing development projects.

Fortunately, the First Amendment protects citizens from such retaliatory action. As one judge wrote in another case involving a SLAPP suit, "Short of a gun to the head, a greater threat to First Amendment expression can scarcely be imagined."

I am very happy that the defendants in the Jonkers-Capriotti lawsuit have this terrible legal weight lifted from their shoulders. One of the defendants, Richard Latterell, is a retired gentleman. He told me he was being sued for more money than he ever made in his entire work career. I admire him for keeping his sense of humor through three years of legal wrangling.

The ruling of Judge Wilkes will not stop developers from filing SLAPP suits. After all, the intent of SLAPP suits is to intimidate, not to win.

Many states, including Maryland, have passed anti-SLAPP statutes to discourage such suits from being filed. I cannot think of a greater tribute to our country's democratic principles than for the West Virginia state legislature to pass a similar statute.

Lyn Widmyer is a Charles Town, W.Va. resident who writes for The Herald-Mail. Her e-mail address is:

rwidmyer@msn.com

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