By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director

It’s a bit shocking to think that government officials believe they can silence residents who oppose a building project by suing them, but that’s just what one regional jail authority seems to be considering.  The Rappahannock, Shenandoah and Warren Counties Regional Jail Authority directed its attorney to research whether the Authority can sue a group of Shenandoah residents who have tried to stop a jail project.
According to news reports, the Authority believes that opposition to the RSW jail project delayed the sale of bonds and resulted in higher interest rates that could mean higher costs to the localities and ultimately derail the project.  Additionally, one critic had pointed out that an agreement states that if the state doesn’t agree to fund fifty percent of anticipated costs, the jail authority would not proceed without getting approval from the participating localities’ governing bodies.  Estimates are that the state will fund about 45 percent of the project.
Protesters haven’t yet chained themselves to fences or otherwise physically impeded construction.  They have engaged and attempted to influence their government officials by speaking out and sending emails, which are activities protected by the First Amendment.
The idea that government officials want to use the courts to suppress public opposition to their actions flies in the face of our notion of free speech.  In the legal world, they call it a SLAPP suit, or Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation.   Those bringing such lawsuits – the government, individuals or businesses  -- aren’t looking to win the case, but merely to intimidate their critics into silence and bog them down in litigation.
The RSW Jail Authority wouldn’t be the first to try such a tactic.
A few years ago, Terry Ellen Carter and Tacy Newell-Foutz used their website (ThinkChristiansburg.com) to complain about mounds of dirt on a developer’s property.  They dubbed it “Woodyville” and “Mount Woody.”  The Christiansburg developer, Roger Woody, then sued the residents for libel and claimed that they conspired to undermine his business.  We represented the residents and the court ruled that Woody had no grounds for his lawsuit.
Similarly, anonymous online critics of plastic surgeons unhappy with their surgeries have been threatened with litigation.  The ACLU of Virginia has defended the free speech rights of such online reviewers.  The surgeons had subpoenaed the internet service provider or online forum host to obtain the identifying information of their critics in an effort to silence them through meritless lawsuits.  In both cases (Rajagopal v. Does; Soto v. Does), the subpoenas were withdrawn after the ACLU and Public Citizen helped take a stand against such lawsuits.
The internet has been called a great equalizer.  It allows for greater public discourse by allowing the average person to voice his or her opinion to a wider audience.  With more people turning to online sources for information and using their blogs, email and social media to spread their message, however, more people are also coming up against attempts to censor those opinions through frivolous but expensive lawsuits.  As an organization committed to defending free speech, we remain vigilant against such efforts to squelch public discourse.