In 1970, Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to create a powerful new weapon against organized crime. Unfortunately the targets of many RICO suits have not been mobsters, rather they increasingly are political activists and reporters. It’s not the mob on trial here, but the First Amendment. The chilling effect such suits have on the defendants’ free speech rights is unquestionable. According to Anthony Califa, the ACLU’s legislative counsel, RICO suits cause serious damage to the defendant long before the case ever gets to trial.
An early, non-mob use of RICO was found in the Christic Institute suit against contragate targets. However, the most extensive use of RICO has been against antiabortion protesters, such as Operation Rescue. Indeed, RICO has created some of the oddest bedfellows in recent history, as the ACLU and the alternative press have rushed to the aid of their usual foes.
A number of anti-choice protesters have been tried and convicted under the loosely structured law, and many more have been stigmatized as “racketeers” and been forced to seek expensive legal counsel, no matter how frivolous the allegations.
The Orange County Post, a 2,700-circulation weekly near Newburgh, New York was the target of a RICO suit brought by the Town of West Hartford, Connecticut. The reason for the suit was an editorial, titled “Northern Red Necks,” which defended the First Amendment rights of anti-abortion protestors.
It now appears RICO will be more widely used to go after other demonstrators such as nuclear activists and environmental groups.
Meanwhile, those interested in intimidating activists have found yet another ally in SLAPPs. According to law professor George Pring and sociologist Penelope Canan of the University of Denver, SI.APPs — Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation — are a new way to suppress political debate. The two professors, who coined the acronym SLAPP, studied 100 cases in which individuals and advocacy groups were sued for taking part in political activity — addressing either a government body or the electorate on an issue of public concern. They found that SLAPPs are spreading across the nation with a message that is both simple and alarming: If you speak out, you risk going to court.
Sometimes a citizen may be sued for something as innocuous as writing a critical letter to a newspaper. A homemaker living near Santa Cruz, California, wrote a letter to her local paper complaining about a proposed development; the developer sued her for $3 million, charging that he had been libeled.
While more than 80 percent of such cases fail in court, SLAPPers are not expected to be deterred since they know their suits cause their targets considerable anxiety and expense … and to think twice before speaking out.
The unintended use of the RICO law and the increasing use of SLAPPs are compromising our most cherished civil liberty — free expression – yet they have been virtually ignored by the mainstream press and are practically unknown to the general public.
SSU CENSORED RESEARCHER: JOHN GILLES
SOURCE: VILLAGE VOICE 842 Broadway, New York, NY 10003, DATE: 10/17/89
TITLE: “RICO STALKS THE PRESS”
AUTHOR: NAT HENTOFF
SOURCE: UTNE READER (Reprinted from THE SANTA CRUZ SUN) 1624 Harmon Place, Minneapolis, MN 55403, DATE: November/December 1989
TITLE: “A NEW WAY TO INTIMIDATE ACTIVISTS”
AUTHOR: EVE PELL
COMMENTS: The RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) story posed a problem for the news media according to author Nat Hentoff. Noting that there was very little attention paid to the issue, Hentoff added “Ordinarily the press would benefit from exposing dangers to its independence but because the story was connected to Operation Rescue (an anti-abortion group), the press, largely pro-choice, ignored it.” On the other hand, Eve Pell’s story reveals what can happen when the press finally does put an issue on the national agenda. Pell first tried to alert the public to the issue of harassment lawsuits in 1981 with an article in The Nation but despite a growing epidemic of such lawsuits, the phenomenon went basically unreported. She stayed with the issue however, and with the support of the Center for Investigative Reporting, in San Francisco, SLAPPs (an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) finally took off in 1990 “after nearly a decade of silence on the issue.” Since then Pell and the Center “researched stories for MacNeil/Lehrer and 20/20, and what a difference that made. Following the MacNeil/Lehrer broadcast, the two professors who are national experts on SLAPPs received more than 600 calls and letters, many from the press. Stories appeared in Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal as well as on the CBS Evening News.” Pell also noted that in 1990 she wrote stories on the issue for Common Cause and California Lawyer. “The California Lawyer story was read by a state senator who became so outraged by the threat to free speech and the democratic process that he introduced legislation that would filter SLAPPs out of the court system. Other states are also looking at ways to eliminate SLAPPs.”