After they've shot at you, beaten you, jailed you, hog-tied you, tried to frame you, and you still speak out against them, what do they do next?
Sometimes they sue you.
After six months of clashes with protesters over bulldozing People's Park, former UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien decided to try a new tactic in 1992. The UC regents sued four of the more active, outspoken participants in his grass roots opposition. This tactic, called a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, makes dissent expensive by saddling the defendants with a battle in civil court, where no legal assistance is provided. This tactic sometimes destroys grass roots movements altogether.
The UC system's inflated damage claims, initially more than $500,000, were dropped in the fall of 1994 in exchange for a summary adjudication and a permanent injunction against the defendants, which UC may use at any time to swiftly jail its critics without due process, and may be enlarged at UC's whim to include others.
Chancellor Robert Berdahl, the inheritor of the SLAPP-suit, can hardly argue that he needs the injunction, which was created to protect an unpopular volleyball court the university finally removed in 1997, from defendants who, save this writer, are either deceased or have left town.
Unless Berdahl vacates the injunction, our community runs the risk of the SLAPP-suit injunction becoming a permanent feature of the park and a permanent danger to any park user the university decides is a little too active or vocal. The Peace and Justice Commission, the Berkeley City Council and the People's Park Community Advisory Board have all made formal recommendations to the university that the injunction be vacated.
The Berkeley community has a choice: cater to the division which is a SLAPP-suit's natural product, or come together to pressure Berdahl to restore free speech and due process in People's Park.
Rather than spend thousands of public dollars on another raft of superficial "improvements," the university should retire the SLAPP-suit, an embarrassing and expensive effort to silence dissent with more than a quarter of a million dollars of the public's money. The expense would be minuscule and would help to make certain this ugly abuse of the civil courts, the public's trust and the public's money will never happen again.
Carol Denney is a community activist who has worked in defense of People's Park since 1972. She was sued for her involvement in 1992.