Sued but not silent

Sued for criticizing an animal rescue group, activists seek to kick-start the anti-SLAPP movement in the Carolinas Before she was sued in a state that she had never visited by people from as far away as South Wales for making defamatory online comments about an animal rescue group, Susan Barrett didn’t know much of anything about strategic lawsuits against public participation.

Now, though, the Winston-Salem woman’s bank account is hurting, her blood pressure is up and she is encouraging lawmakers to renew stalled efforts to enact anti-SLAPP regulations that would make it more difficult for corporations and other well-heeled litigants to silence their critics with the threat of costly litigation.

“This is desperately needed,” she said. “They’ve been trying to silence our freedom of speech. They’ve totally ruined our lives.”

Barrett is one of five animal rights activists who have spent the past seven months fending off a federal lawsuit filed in Michigan that accused them of taking to Facebook and Craigslist to attack an out-of-state group called Seven Star Sanctuary and Rescue Inc. The other four defendants are Peter MacQueen of Southport, N.C.; Patricia Lambert of Whiteville, N.C.; Andie Cavanaugh of Columbia, S.C.; and Yolanda Rios of Pennsylvania.

Seven Star and its far-flung members raise money to rescue dogs and cats from shelters that routinely kill animals that aren’t adopted within a certain timeframe. But Barrett and her co-defendants have criticized the group for rescuing animals from local shelters, but then abandoning them at veterinary offices and pocketing the donations.

“There are a tremendous amount of these animals left throughout eastern North Carolina,” said Barrett, who added that an estimated 2,000 animals that were picked up by Seven Star are unaccounted for and the group still owes thousands of dollars to at least seven area vets.
“This isn’t the first group to do this,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of Northern groups come down here and create a whole lot of messes.”

A U.S. District Court judge in Michigan dismissed Seven Star’s defamation suit for lack of jurisdiction on July 19, but the fight appears far from over. Barrett said that she and her co-defendants expect to be sued by Seven Star in another jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Barrett was planning a countersuit alleging defamation and emotional distress.

“Right now we’re out $15,000 in legal fees and we know this isn’t finished,” she said. “Seven months of our lives have already been destroyed.”

The attorney who represented Barrett and her co-defendants, Stephen F. MacGuidwin of the Varnum law firm in Grand Rapids, Mich., declined comment. Attorneys for Seven Star, Kenneth Hardin and Nicole Thompson of Hardin Thompson in Southfield, Mich., did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Legislative efforts fell short
Anti-SLAPP bills have been introduced in the North and South Carolina legislatures, but the proposals have failed to gain momentum, whether it be from lack of bipartisan support or opposition from big business.

In S.C., the Citizens Participation in Government Act was filed in 2009 and has remained in the House judiciary committee ever since. Its sole sponsor, Rep. James E. Smith Jr., a Democrat and Columbia lawyer, was traveling out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

Last year in N.C., the Citizens Protection Act was filed after building-materials company Titan America sued a pediatrician and homemaker for speaking out against its controversial plan to build a cement plant near Wilmington along the banks of the Cape Fear River.
The bill never made it into committee and its co-sponsor, Rep. Susi H. Hamilton, a Democrat in New Hanover County, was unaware of any immediate plans to revive the legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

“If there is interest in revisiting it next year, then I would be onboard,” she added. “To me, it’s an important bit of legislation. As long as we’re telling the truth, no one should worry about speaking out.”

So far, 28 states and the District of Columbia have enacted anti-SLAPP regulations, which allow their courts to scrutinize whether censorship was the sole motivation behind a suit and, if that’s the case, order plaintiffs to pay attorneys’ fees, legal costs and even damages.
“You at least give some of these SLAPP plaintiffs a reason to pause,” said Gary K. Shipman of Shipman & Wright in Wilmington. He defended the two New Hanover County residents in the Titan libel suit, which has settled.

He advised that any attorney who is defending a client against what appears to be a SLAPP suit in the Carolinas or other states that have yet to enact regulations should still air their suspicions before the court from the outset.

“You need to act on your belief early in the process,” he said. “If you don’t, by the time you get to the summary judgment stage the court may be less focused on the reason for the case than what the evidence seems to suggest.”

Credits to
http://nclawyersweekly.com/

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Anti-Slapp Lawsuit Blogs picks up the Michigan Federal Lawsuit Case

Exposure can be a great thing for some and a bigger world of hurt for others and is why I would say prior to ever filing in any court room ask yourself, are you ready for everything and anything to come out about your life? Most of us would say NO right off the bat but for some the warning signs are never enough to deter a bad game of poker.

Who knows how they did it, but the Defendants in this Lawsuit were able to gain presence for this Michigan Federal Lawsuit by adding a “Guest Blog” to one of the ANTI SLAPP movements websites, called the PPP. ( Public Participation Project). One would think at going to such lengths that they must have more evidence on their end than first posted on any Facebook page or maybe it’s just they are 100% committed to their stance on what brought them all together.

Either way I feel this one case has much value to all in the Animal Rescue World and Legal field, time and time again we see different spin off legal cases hitting our court room based around Facebook. However most the cases we have seen have fallen flat on their face one has to ask, it is the incident that occurred, the factually evidence or that the Laws and Laws Firms today have yet not caught up with cyber technology? I feel this is just the beginning to a back log of Facebook legal issues that will be hitting all our courthouses very soon.

To view the PPP website and Quest Blog please click here: http://www.anti-slapp.org/recent/ppp-guest-blog-post-by-yolanda-rios

Or the short version without the comments:

Yolanda Rios
With each passing moment the need for a federal law to stop SLAPP lawsuits grows as innocent people are being robbed of the most fundamental of freedoms, the Freedom of Speech. Laws and court systems that were meant to protect individuals are instead being abused and twisted to the benefit of others. SLAPP Lawsuits, designed to censor, intimidate, and silence individuals while burdening them with cost of legal fees, have grown steadily and are now rampant in our society and there is very little that has been done at the legislative level to stop them. Some states have enacted Anti-SLAPP laws but many still have not. For example, North Carolina does not have an Anti-SLAPP law while Pennsylvania has a very limited one that only applies to those petitioning the government over environmental issues. While the need for such legislation is abundantly clear the average person does not understand how critical this is and the only way for anyone to understand the serious repercussions of a SLAPP lawsuit is to examine cases that have been built around them.

One such case was recently filed in the state of Michigan, to which I am one of several defendants. A Federal case was filed by a group of individuals from various states and the UK (Mary Jo Thomas, Melissa Impens, Seven Star Sanctuary and Rescue, and Penelope Shaw-Ashenhurst) against another group of individuals from various states (Yolanda Rios, Susan Barrett, Pat Lambert, Peter MacQueen, and Andie Cavanaugh) citing slander and libel based on comments made on Facebook and other forums. The plaintiffs claim that defamatory posts were made with respect to their animals rescue efforts and that as a result of those posts they were unable to collect the funds needed to not only continue their rescue efforts but also to pay the various vets they owe money to in the state of North Carolina. Upon reading this initial snippet of information here one would gather the plaintiffs have a valid case but upon further examination of the court document itself and the facts revolving around the case one can clearly see it is not only without merit but by definition is a SLAPP lawsuit. SLAPP Lawsuits are not designed to go to trial or be won, they are designed to chill freedom of speech and press by bankrupting the defendant. They are clearly designed to stifle the voice of public advocates who speak out on controversial issues.

The lawsuit itself is nothing more than 17 pages of ridiculously put together babble, full of cut and pasted comments taken from Facebook and other forums. Upon reading it one would think it was put together by a fifth grade and not an attorney. But even more disturbing is the fact that of 25 allegations being made by the plaintiffs only a handful of the comments listed were actually posted by the defendants; those few comments not being based on assumptions, on lies, or on heresy, but on verifiable facts.
Facts such as:

1. The plaintiffs listed orchestrated and participated in the pulling of mass numbers of animals from a number of shelters in North Carolina such as the Columbus County Animal Shelter. Over 2000 animals were pulled by them from that one shelter alone and to date are unaccounted for. The plaintiffs are not part of any rescue entity or organization even though the lawsuit lists them as part of Seven Star Sanctuary. Kennel cards were obtained for the past year from this shelter that show these individuals pulled animals under another organization’s 501C3. To date these individuals are still participating in these actions.

2. Seven Star Sanctuary is registered in the state of Kentucky only, not in Michigan where this case was filed. The Kentucky location has their 501c3 listed with the IRS but the Michigan location is still not properly licensed with their own state. Not before the lawsuit, during the filing of the lawsuit or even as of last week. In addition all of the events occurred in North Carolina and in cyber space, not in Michigan as is claimed by the plaintiffs.

3. The plaintiffs who claim to all be part of this organization orchestrated and participated in the creation of various chipins for fundraising. These funds were to be used to vet the animals they pulled from shelters yet instead of vetting these animals hundreds were left abandoned in vet offices across North Carolina with outstanding vet bills ranging in the thousands. One of these vets just recently came forward with their story: http://www.wect.com/story/18770752/vet-says-animal-rescue-group-hasnt-paid-18k-owed-for-services

4. Animals that were not abandoned in vet offices were transported across state lines, from areas in the south where Distemper and Parvo are prevalent, with no vetting or health certificates as required by law and not by APHIS licensed transporters. Health Certificate records were obtained from the department of Agriculture in North Carolina for the past year to confirm this fact was indeed true and the plaintiffs openly posted their transport plans on Facebook. More information can be found here: http://www.examiner.com/article/friends-of-animals-warn-rescuers-to-take-proper-precautions-for-disease-control
The rest of the comments, which make up the majority of the lawsuit, were not posted by the defendants but rather by other individuals not named in the lawsuit, such as Shelter Shame, or on others forums, such as Craig’s List. How exactly can anyone be held accountable for comments made by others? As stated previously, further investigation into the case not only reveals how ridiculous it truly is but how it is nothing more than an attempt to silence criticism of questionable rescue tactics and the breaking of multiple state and federal laws. This lawsuit is but one example of many out there. More information about this lawsuit can be obtained here: http://westerndistrictofmichiganlawsuit.webs.com/ and here: http://www.facebook.com/ForThemWeSpeak

Unless one is going thru a SLAPP lawsuit one cannot fully understand the implications or the damage these lawsuits can cause. One cannot comprehend the violation of rights nor the cost to the defendants trying to fight them. One can simply not fathom the danger the public is put in because of those that wish to suppress freedom of speech. Sadly until a federal anti-SLAPP statute is put in place, these meritless lawsuits will continue to not only to consume court resources, but to silence many advocates trying to warn the public.

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