By Pat Loeb

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Civic leaders are urging Philadelphia City Council to find a way to curb so-called “SLAPP” suits, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, which are nuisance lawsuits designed to discourage neighbors from getting involved in local issues.

“A SLAPP lawsuit is a perverse, weaponized version of a legal process,” said Joe Schiavo.

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Schiavo used to be on the board of the Old City Civic Association until it was, as he says, SLAPPed out of existence.

“Old City could easily be the story of any Philadelphia civic group,” Shiavo said.

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Developers and business owners bring the suits, not with any hope of winning, they know the suits have no merit, but, as Matt Ruben of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association told council: “it is to drain you of money to silence you.”

Ruben got sued when his group opposed a permit for a bar that had been illegally operating as a nightclub and, though he ultimately won, it was a difficult 18 months.

“You have to sit there with these scurrilous and untrue and horrible things that are said about you in a public lawsuit for months or years at a time, and when you’re a volunteer, who would ever sign up for that?” he said.

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At a council hearing this week, members suggested the best route would be to urge the state house to pass SB95, a bill now in committee that would protect organizations from the suits.