A slap upside the head is a surefire way to get somebody’s attention. Illegal but effective. It’s akin to the old defensive lineman’s technique of slapping the helmet of his counterpart on the O-line to clear a path to the quarterback. The NFL outlawed the multiple head slap in 1976, and flat-out banned the slap-happy maneuver in 1977.

Now the Tennessee General Assembly is considering an anti-SLAPP ban of its own. The acronym stands for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.” The point of the Tennessee Public Participation Act is to protect freedom of speech by making it tougher for powerful forces to use their deep pockets to subvert the First Amendment.

The bill, HB777, is sponsored in the state House by Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville. Its companion bill in the Senate, SB1097, is sponsored by Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville. It’s on today’s calendar of the House Judiciary Committee. By rights, it should sail through. But we all know about rights when it comes to underdogs asserting theirs.

SLAPP refers to the growing trend of retaliatory lawsuits brought to threaten opponents with a lengthy and expensive court process. In these cases, the outcome of the trial doesn’t really matter, so long as it sends the message that public criticism will prove expensive.

Lawsuits are being filed in Tennessee not to right a wrong, but to intimidate. The suits are bought to silence people, to keep them from expressing their views, to scare them out of participating in matters of public interest.

Time and time again large companies, agencies and rich individuals have filed defamation suits to muzzle those with limited resources. Their lawyers can control the length of intimidation with legal maneuvers, knowing a defendant’s limited resources eventually will give out. Others are made afraid to speak out.

What the Tennessee Public Participation Act does is to allow a defendant to petition the court to determine the validity of a lawsuit before it gets to the discovery phase — the extremely expensive and lengthy part of the process.

As summarized, the act “creates a process by which a person may petition a court to dismiss a legal action that is based on the person’s exercise of the right to free speech, right to petition or right of association.”

In layperson’s language, the act lets the defendant go to the judge and make the argument that a defamation lawsuit is frivolous. The judge determines the validity of the lawsuit and can toss a bogus suit before the discovery phase starts.

There is broad-based support for the bill. Organizations ranging from the conservative Beacon Center of Tennessee to the liberal American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee support it. Twenty-eight states have passed an anti-SLAPP statute.

“Deacon” Jones, Los Angeles Rams legend and member of the NFL Hall of Fame, is credited with perfecting the head slap. He even coined the term “sack” for tackling a quarterback in the backfield, his specialty. He died in 2013, but intimidated members of the General Assembly, armchair quarterbacks who would block this bill, should not rest easy. “The Secretary of Defense” is no longer around to knock some sense into legislators beholden to the high and mighty. True enough, but others are.

The beauty of this bill is that it preserves the constitutional right of every Tennessean to exercise freedom of speech by reducing the risk of intimidation by lawyers and their wealthy clients. By its passage, it also just might prevent recalcitrant legislators from having to be slapped down the next time they face the voters of their districts — in other words, getting sacked.

Bob has served in a variety of roles since joining The Daily Times in the 90s. He currently is editor of the business section. When someone gets promoted, retires or gets hired at a new job in Blount County, he's the man to email.

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