The defendants named in the recently dropped lawsuit filed by the UC Board of Regents against Occupy the Farm intended to file an anti-SLAPP motion against the university in response to the case earlier this month.
SLAPP — Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — is a type of lawsuit intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics of corporations or government entities by burdening them with the cost of legal defense.
The acronym was first coined in the 1980s to describe lawsuits filed against environmental activists, but it has now come to include any suit that threatens an individual’s or group’s right to petition as provided by the First Amendment, and in California, it also describes suits that threaten speech on any public issue.
To combat SLAPP suits, California passed a code that allows defendants named in SLAPP suits to file a motion striking a complaint of their restriction of protected First Amendment rights. This motion is known as an anti-SLAPP motion.
“It was clear from the beginning that the Regents filed a lawsuit in order to chill constitutionally protected freedom of speech and assembly rights,” said Ioana Tchoukleva, a UC Berkeley Law student and legal representative on the case, in a statement.
Tchoukleva said that Occupy the Farm’s goal was to create a community site for urban agriculture at the Gill Tract, and the anti-SLAPP motion was designed to protect the group’s activities, to prove that the lawsuit involved restriction of First Amendment rights and to show that the regents did not have sufficient evidence to prove their case.
According to Tchoukleva, the motion was going to be filed on June 22. On Wednesday, it was announced that the university was dismissing the case because, according to campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof, a cost-benefit analysis revealed that the case would be too time-consuming and a waste of resources and because the university received what it wanted, which was for the protesters to leave the Gill Tract.
With the lawsuit dropped, the university has to recoup its loss of more than $300,000 incurred as a result of Occupy the Farm activities, which included a university-run police raid on May 14 to force protesters off the land.
“It’s not clear right now how we will get money from the damages,” Mogulof said. “We’re hoping for some insurance to cover the damages from all the property damage, but we won’t know for another week or two.”
The lawsuit claimed counts of trespassing and nuisance against Occupy the Farm protesters for their monthlong occupation of the university-owned research field.
“If the concern was truly with trespass or nuisance, then the Regents could have sued all the hundreds of individuals who entered the Gill Tract on April 22, 2012,” Tchoukleva said in the statement. “Instead, they chose to file a civil lawsuit in an attempt to intimidate and burden activists with thousands of dollars in alleged damages.”
Mogulof said that though the university has no issue with the involved individuals voicing their desires, the protesters unilaterally “imposed their will” on campus faculty members and students by trespassing on the Gill Tract.
Upon learning about the anti-SLAPP motion, Mogulof also said it “boggles the mind” that protesters would use an argument that justifies occupying research land as a First Amendment right.
“If you use their logic, then they could go into any lab or classroom in any university and disrupt their activities and claim that it is their constitutional speech to do so,” he said.