A judge in Delaware has allowed a shopping center developer to gain access to the home computers of opponents of his plan. A citizen’s group called the Friends of Historic Glasgow, released the following statement: “In what may prove to be the first test of Delaware’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) law, a judge of the Delaware Court of Chancery ruled on Saturday that a real estate developer may search the hard drives of computers belonging to two opponents of his plans for building a housing and shopping center on Glasgow farmland. Anti-SLAPP laws are designed to protect people who are actively petitioning the government from intimidation through lawsuits. There are 24 other states with similar anti-SLAPP laws. In early 2005, Developer Stephen J. Nichols purchased a 236 acre parcel of farmland located in Glasgow, Delaware, called “La Grange.” The owner was Anne M. Barczewski, but after Mrs. Barczewski lapsed into dementia, her grown children assumed control of the farm and sold it to Mr. Nichols. In November, 2005, Mr. Nichols sued Mrs. Barczewski (then terminally ill) and her children, claiming that they were breaching the contract of sale by opposing his development plans at county hearings. Mrs. Barczewski passed away in January, 2006. When Mrs. Barczewski’s granddaughter, Susan L. Arday and her husband David began appearing at land use hearings objecting to the development, Mr. Nichols added them to his lawsuit, claiming that the Ardays were acting as agents of one of the sellers. The Ardays arelong-standing members of the Friends of Historic Glasgow. The Ardays have asked the court to dismiss the case against them, on the ground that they have a right under the First Amendment to attend government meetings and protest against proposed permits. They claim that Nichols’ suit against them is an unlawful SLAPP suit, and are asking the court to make Mr. Nichols pay their attorneys’ fees. Vice Chancellor Leo E. Strine, Jr. said that before he would rule on the Ardays’ motion, Mr. Nichols was entitled to gather evidence. Mr. Nichols has taken depositions of the Ardays and they have had toproduce hundreds of pages of e-mails relating to the dispute. Mr. Nichols has now demanded that the Ardays turn over their computers for further inspection. “This is very traumatic and a gross invasion of privacy,” says Susan L. Arday. “I feel personally violated. The lawsuit is based on a false premise, that I acted as the agent of my mother. In fact, my mother has nothing to do with my actions, and Mr. Nichols knows it. I have protested his proposed development because the land is an important historical site, and to honor the wishes of my late grandmother, who always said that she wanted the land to be preserved, not developed.” The Ardays’ lawyer, David L. Finger, said the ruling permitting access to the Ardays’ computers was unusual. “There has been no showing that there are likely to be any additional relevant `hidden’e-mails on those computers. Mr. Nichols is merely fishing.” Said David Arday: “This whole thing makes a mockery of Delaware’s anti-SLAPP law. The law is supposed to resolve these types of cases quickly at minimal expense. All this is doing is costing us time and money, in an attempt to bully us to stop opposing Mr. Nichols’ plans. But we will not stop exercising our rights.”
The Ardays are likely to prevail in this case, but they are having to spend time and money defending their First Amendment right to petition government, not to mention the aggravation of dealing with a legal action designed merely to harass them.
For more information on this case, contact Attorney David L. Finger, Finger & Slanina, LLC, One Commerce Center, 1201 Orange Street, Suite 725, Wilmington, DE 19801-1155. (302) 884-6766. [email protected] For more info on SLAPP suits, go to www.walmartwatch.com/battlemart, and search by “SLAPP”, and search the Newsflash database by the same keyword.