It was 20 years ago today (no, I’m not beginning this column with a Beatles song) that I had to appear in state court. The story begins a few months prior to that when I, a young mom living in Geneva Garden Apartments (the low-income housing complex on Pulteney Street) was served the week before Christmas 1999 with a $1 million defamation lawsuit.
Let’s go back one more month to November 1999, when, following the election in which I first won a seat on City Council, I was approached by a prominent businessman and told to “buckle up” (being a person who always insists on seat belts, I didn’t realize at the time that was a threat).
To understand why I was being sued we need to go back even further, to the spring of 1999 when I was still a college student and not at all entertaining ideas of running for local office. I had a part-time job at the Finger Lakes Times, which gave me the opportunity to read the newspaper. There were many stories about a brewing controversy involving former City Manager Sanford Miller. Mr. Miller was less than kind to many community members, and the Geneva Human Rights Commission issued an invitation for residents to come forward and share their stories about him. I was at that meeting, not with a complaint, just as a member of the general public, and after a woman shared her story of Mr. Miller threatening her dog, a man who introduced himself as the city manager’s attorney turned on a camcorder and said he would be filming the remainder of the meeting. He behaved in a way that caused people to feel uncomfortable until the meeting ended. I didn’t know what this was all about, but it certainly didn’t feel right.
I felt that I should go to the next Council meeting and share what I saw so that councilors would know that there was an effort by the manager and his attorney to prevent people from filing formal complaints. I described the behavior as “unprofessional, unethical, and childish” and asked Council to consider why a city employee would send his attorney to bully residents. Eventually, the complaints were heard and the findings led to Mr. Miller’s firing (Mr. Miller has created similar controversy in subsequent positions).
It wasn’t until I ran successfully for City Council, about six months after I made those comments, that I was sued. The lawsuit alleged that my comments about Mr. Miller’s attorney were defamatory. No direct harm was alleged, but the lawsuit claimed $1 million in “punitive damages” which (as the names suggests) are designed to punish. So I was being sued for $1 million not because I had caused harm but because someone wanted to teach me a lesson about speaking up. These types of lawsuits now have a name: Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP). I encourage you to google that name or head to YouTube and watch the “This Week Tonight” episode about this topic for more details.
The hallmark of a SLAPP suit is that the person or business bringing it isn’t looking to win in court. Instead, the win comes from causing stress and expense to the person being sued. The idea is to scare someone into not speaking out in the future, for fear of losing money and time defending another frivolous lawsuit. SLAPP suits have one purpose: intimidating someone into silence. SLAPP suits have become such a problem that 32 states now have some sort of protection against them.
I spoke out about someone in power attempting to silence residents, and for that the powers that be wanted to silence me. That failed (thanks to some local attorneys who filed the paperwork for my defense) and now is part of the NYS Appellate Court’s record of precedents related to libel claims. I was instructed that I could countersue for “frivolous and malicious prosecution” and likely win, but I am not much for lawsuits or revenge (even though I definitely could have used the money). Instead, I just resolved to keep on speaking up — which led to other attempts to silence me; but those are stories for another day.
Twenty years after the SLAPP suit that was roundly and clearly dismissed as lacking merit, I am looking at our local political scene and see the same things happening around the region, with lawsuits (the landfills like to threaten lots of those), with social media smears, and with threats against people’s jobs and families. When the “good ole boys” try to threaten and punish, maybe it’s worth asking what secrets they are working so hard to keep hidden, or what questions they are so afraid might be asked. Would people without secrets work so hard to silence others?