LOS ANGELES - In fall 2005, Ken Stansbury and other Riverside residents were fuming over a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision involving eminent domain, the right of governments to take over privately owned land for projects deemed of benefit to the public.
So Stansbury did what California law allows: He started a petition drive for an initiative to stop the City of Riverside from taking land and giving it to developers. But before Stansbury could gather signatures to qualify his ballot measure, the city sued to halt the campaign.
Stansbury responded by filing a motion in California Superior Court in March 2006 under a law intended to prevent well-financed attempts to stifle free speech. California's anti-SLAPP law (short for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) has protected journalists, consumer groups seeking to expose industrial pollution, and ordinary people wanting to get involved in the political process. The Superior Court granted the motion and dismissed the suit, City of Riverside v. Stansbury, but a state appeals court sided with the city in October 2007. The initiative never appeared on a ballot.
Today the ACLU of Southern California, the Los Angeles firm of Bostwick & Jassy and Riverside attorney Richard Brent Reed filed a petition for review to the California Supreme Court asking it to overturn the Court of Appeals decision. The Supreme Court has 60 days to act on the petition.
'Riverside's lawsuit runs counter to California's tradition of direct democracy,' said Peter Eliasberg, Manheim Family Attorney for First Amendment Rights at the ACLU of Southern California. 'It sends a message that if you try to put an initiative on the ballot, you are likely to get sued and that the anti-SLAPP statute will not protect you, no matter how meritless the lawsuit. If the ruling is allowed to stand, initiative campaigns will be a game only the wealthy can play.'
The appeals court's decision would mean that an initiative's backers can be forced to defend the proposed initiative in court even before they know whether they can gather enough signatures to qualify it for the ballot. Stansbury and others like him could face thousands of dollars in court fees. 'That's expensive and undemocratic,' said Eliasberg.
'I'm not afraid of government,' said Stansbury, who has refiled the ballot measure. 'When the city decided to sue me, it became far more about democracy than about public use laws. This is an egregious SLAPP suit.'
Riverside is one of several California cities to sue initiative backers in an attempt to quash their campaigns. The ACLU/SC represents Jeff Furchtenicht, an Ojai small-business owner who filed an anti-SLAPP motion over two proposed ballot measures, one involving affordable housing and the other to ban chain stores from the Ventura County town. That case, Widders vs. Furchtenicht, is now in front of the Second District Court of Appeal.