It has all the ingredients of a mythic hero story.
And it was. Until that multinational oil giant hired private investigators to track the lawyer’s movements, started a public smear campaign against him, and gathered literally hundreds of lawyers to obliterate him. He ended up under house arrest for over two years and has only just been freed.
This was the fate of Steven Donziger, the man who stood up to big oil, and we call that a SLAPP.
Harvard Law student @AaronRegunberg Spoke with power at the rally marking the end of my 993 days of detention. Inspiring to see Law Students for Climate Accountability (@sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss) boycott Chevron law firms like @gibsondunn.
“Big Law is aiding corporate crimes against humanity.” pic.twitter.com/Dstwn96yeg
— Steven Donziger (@SDonziger) May 3, 2022
What Is a SLAPP?
No, not a slap (although it probably feels more like a punch to the gut). SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation and they’re what companies that are poor on ethics — but rich in cash — use to try to silence their critics.
All around the world, people speak out on injustices they see. Many do this at great personal risk. Turkish activist Osman Kavala, for example, was speaking to life in prison for out against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
While you might live in a country where it’s unlikely your government would jail you for speaking out on issues of public interest, a SLAPP is a lawsuit used by big private sector polluters and human rights’ abusers to attempt to squash those who speak out in opposition .
They are typically filed against community leaders, social, indigenous leaders, and environmental defenders.
SLAPPs are baseless lawsuits. They’ve got nothing to do with justice and are uniquely designed to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these suits.
Unfortunately, they’re effective. Why? Because they can take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight in the courts. To end a SLAPP, those being falsely prosecuted “frequently agree to muzzle themselves, apologize, or ‘correct’ statements,” according to the Public Participation Project.
Even more worrying, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor — read more about Lawlor and her work here — says they “have become a global trend.”
4 Key Stats to Know About SLAPPs
- 2 in 5 people live in a country with repressed civic freedoms;
- The highest number of SLAPPs take place in Latin America;
- Nearly three-quarters of cases were brought in countries in the Global South;
- Most individuals and groups facing SLAPPs raised concerns about four sectors: mining, agriculture and livestock, logging and lumber, and palm oil.
‘SLAPPshots’ of Cases
From a congressman suing CNN, to a doggy daycare seeking a million-dollar settlement over a one-star Yelp review, here are some of the most outrageous SLAPPs from recent history.