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.”

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