By Kristen Rasmussen

This month would have marked the sixth year of Jeffrey Cameron, Andrea Cameron and Doug Bouge’s costly and time-consuming legal battle — a legal battle that arose solely from their concern about a Palm Beach County, Fla., neighbor’s plan to construct a mega-dock on publicly owned lands within an aquatic preserve, and that could have been resolved in their favor in five months or less if Florida’s anti-SLAPP statutes provided broader protection.

“We need a very quick way of getting these issues in front of a judge because there isn’t one,” said Marcy LaHart, the Gainesville, Fla., lawyer who represented the three defendants in the defamation, “wrongful interference with the permitting process” and conspiracy lawsuit their neighbor, attorney Paul Thibadeau, brought against them.

Thibadeau alleged that the defendants’ public opposition to his application for a permit to build the 270-foot dock caused the local body that manages parts of the river on which he planned to build the structure to administratively challenge the dock permit. Thibadeau sought $100,000 in damages from Bouge and the Camerons, the amount of money he claimed he expended in defending the permit application.

“[This case is] the poster child for why we need a strong anti-SLAPP provision,” LaHart said.

Short for strategic lawsuits against public participation, SLAPPs have become an all-too-common tool for intimidating and silencing critics of businesses, often, as in the Florida case, involved in environmental and local land development issues.

A Dallas land developer in October 2008 sued the author and publisher of a book that criticized his involvement in a city’s eminent domain plan, alleging 79 separate grounds for defamation. Finding that none of the statements at issue defamed the plaintiff, a Texas appellate court in July threw out the claims in Main v. Royall, a case that came to exemplify why Texas enacted an anti-SLAPP law this past legislative session.

Indeed, most suits of this nature would likely fail on their legal merits if fully litigated. Yet, the individuals who bring them meet their objective if they effectively prevent opponents from speaking out. Although most are brought under the guise of a defamation claim, SLAPP suits could just as easily come as accusations of trademark infringement, emotional distress or, like the Florida case, conspiracy or interference with some type of process or business relationship, as in a claim of interference with contract or economic advantage.