My friend Paul Jacob of the Citizens in Charge Foundation once was arrested in Oklahoma for defending the right of citizens to petition their government through the initiative process. So when he warned in January that public officials shouldn’t be allowed to “simply throw dissenters into a gulag and govern by decree,” he was speaking with a high degree of moral authority.
But when I discovered that the public officials he was writing about in his column – who had sued their own citizens “regularly and repeatedly” for daring to participate in direct democracy – were right in my own back yard, my jaw dropped. How did I miss this?
Indeed, upon further investigation I confirmed that after the sponsors of four ballot initiatives in Boulder City complied with the signature-gathering requirements as stipulated by Nevada state law to place four initiatives on the ballot last fall, city attorney Dave Olsen – with the approval of the mayor and two elected city council members – “sued the individuals who petitioned to put these proposals on the ballot – personally.”
Making matters worse, not only did the city’s public officials sue the sponsors before the election in an effort to keep the initiatives off the ballot, they sued those same citizens again after three of the four initiatives were approved by the majority of Boulder City citizens last November.
This is beyond outrageous.
These citizens were sued personally for exercising their constitutional right to petition their government for redress. And in case you may have missed that day in U.S. History class, the relevant language in the First Amendment is as follows: “Congress shall make no law…abridging…the right of the people…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Or as Wikipedia explains: “The right to petition government for redress of grievances is the right to make a complaint to, or seek the assistance of, one’s government, without fear of punishment or reprisals.”
Oh, and as everyone who didn’t miss the Civil War-era classes in U.S. History knows, the 14th Amendment extended the federal prohibition to abridging the right of the people to petition the government to state and local governments, as well. That includes, believe it or not…Boulder City.
For most people, the fear of being sued and the concurrent risk to their reputations is almost as frightening as an IRS audit. Suing citizens for exercising their rights will ultimately and inevitably have a “chilling effect” on the sponsors and anyone else in Boulder City who might in the future dare to participate in their own government through the initiative process.
The fact that the city, as Mayor Roger Tobler explains, did not sue the citizens for monetary damages is irrelevant. The lawsuits require the citizens to defend themselves and their reputations in court – which absent pro bono representation could mean thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars in legal fees.
This is a textbook example of a SLAPP suit – Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation – and Nevada has laws against them. As Mr. Jacob noted in his column, the result of such SLAPP suits, if unchecked, will be “a quiet populace unwilling to risk engagement in the political process, and thus unable to hold government accountable.”
Boulder City’s action in this matter is an affront to our American heritage and sure as Hades isn’t what the Founding Fathers intended. The case is currently working its way to the Nevada Supreme Court where, if there’s any justice, the city’s public officials will be slapped down for their SLAPP suit against their own citizens. So let it be written; so let it be done.