SLAPP Happy?

           DESPITE THE BEST efforts of neighborhood activists, the construction crews are hard at work at the Ewing Wetlands. In recent months, the last privately held wetland in the city, located near Cedar Lake in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood, has given way to "Cedar Place," an upscale residential development featuring a handful of "executive" homes. The attempt to prevent developer Mike Halley from building Cedar Place failed; but Halley is striking back anyway with what some observers are calling a "Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation," a so-called SLAPP suit, dragging a pair of local activists into court.

           At the heart of the lawsuit are Lynn Levine and Kim Ramey's homemade billboards. The signs, which run along the road outside the development, bear logos opposing the construction: a home falling apart as its foundation sinks into the muck, a "killdozer" spewing pollutants into the air as it mows down trees and sullies the environment, a fluorescent yellow sunburst advertising a "free pool in basement" for any unlucky folk who may buy a wetland home, and a menacing skull and cross bones next to the rhetorical question "Clean Water: Who Needs It?" Halley claims the billboards defame him, and has asked the court for over $50,000 to compensate for physical damages, damages to his reputation, and for "mental anguish."

           The ever-present billboards mark the last gasp of what once was a neighborhood-wide protest movement against the Cedar Place development. In 1989, Glacier Park, a spin-off of Burlington Northern Railroad Company, put 48 acres of land by Cedar Lake up for sale. Helped by grants from the Neighborhood Revitalization Program and from the state, a community group bought most of the land for a city park. But a parcel containing the Ewing Wetland, a four-acre endangered wetland area, was not included in the park and went up for sale. Halley bought the land, and with the neighborhood fighting every step, eventually gained approval from the City of Minneapolis to build 10 homes clustered around the wetland. In the process, the wetland magically shrank from four to 1.75 acres--just below the two-acre minimum required for protection under state environmental laws. But Levine and Ramey didn't give up their protest when construction began. And that's when Halley struck back with his lawsuit.

           So far the court has given Halley the benefit of the doubt on his defamation charges. His other claims against the pair--trespass and vandalism--have already been dismissed for lack of evidence, and it seems unlikely that Halley's company will win damages in court. Neither Halley nor his attorney would comment on the suit. "They don't have any damages," says Larry Leventhal, one of Levine and Ramey's attorneys. The suit, Leventhal contends, "is strictly a suit out of spite to cause [Levine and Ramey] pain, to cause them loss, to try and threaten everybody who might try to criticize him and the type of people that are doing the same things he is."

           That, Leventhal says, is the point of a SLAPP suit--not to recover damages, but to inflict them, using the lawsuit as a weapon. John Gryzbeck, another attorney working on the case, is no stranger to this type of lawsuit. In fact, he wrote the Minnesota law that makes a SLAPP suit itself grounds for dismissal. "Most SLAPP suits eventually fail, but with a price," Gryzbeck says. Defendants "have to spend their resources--whether financial, time, or emotional--on the lawsuit, instead of addressing the underlying action they were fighting in the first place." So far, the court hasn't bought the lawyers' arguments. Hennepin County Judge Marilyn Justman denied a motion to dismiss the suit outright as a SLAPP. The judge is currently considering a second motion to dismiss the case.

           Levine has spent $20,000 on legal fees and still owes more money. But she seems immune to the sting of the SLAPP: "This is going to cost me a lot of time and a lot of energy," she muses, "and for what? But most of the time, I don't think for what? If people started to look at groundwater pollution because of this, and I lose everything I have, it would be worth it."

           But with two houses built and more on the way, environmental issues no longer seem to be at stake on Ewing Avenue. Now the battle is over free speech, and Leventhal says that now the First Amendment, not a patch of wetland, is threatened. "If this type of suit can succeed," he says, "it puts a significant damper on free speech when it comes up against economic interests. And what free speech is supposed to be is free speech. It's not just free speech for those who have something to sell."

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