The developer of an Absecon housing complex is suing a resident who opposed the conversion of the development, originally senior housing for those 55 and older, to housing for all ages.

The unusual suit sounds a lot like something called a SLAPP - Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation. And SLAPPs are a chilling affront to free speech and the notion of open government.

Anthony Cappuccio, the president of Boardwalk Development & Design Inc., took over the 76-unit Absecon Gardens housing complex when the original developer went bankrupt.

Cappuccio successfully convinced the Absecon Planning Board to allow him to remove the 55-and-older restriction, citing a downturn in the market for senior housing. A group of residents opposed to the conversion - the Save Absecon Committee - filed a suit challenging the Planning Board's decision, but a Superior Court judge upheld the board's action.

Now, the Save Absecon Committee is appealing to the Appellate Division - and Cappuccio is suing committee member Barbara Brown, claiming that she defamed, libeled and slandered him.

The developer, of course, has every right to defend himself from defamation. But Brown and other members of the Save Absecon Committee contend they simply exercised their right to oppose the project and never defamed Cappuccio. Deciding whether this suit was, in fact, filed simply to silence Cappuccio's opponents will be a matter for the courts.

But the suit does not list any exact quotations from Brown, and winning in court is rarely the goal of SLAPP suits. The goal is to force your opponents to spend time, money and energy to defend themselves - and get them to shut up.

SLAPPs aren't new. The phrase was coined in the 1980s. And in a 1992 decision, New York Supreme Court Judge J. Nicholas Colabella said, "Short of a gun to the head, a greater threat to First Amendment expression can scarcely be imagined."

At least 30 states have anti-SLAPP laws, but New Jersey does not. The state Supreme Court has ruled, however, that defendants in a SLAPP suit can slap back. If they win the suit and can show it was brought without probable cause and with malice, and that they suffered a "special grievance," they can file a counter-claim.

Problem is, that's a lot of trouble to go through simply for excercising your right to free speech.

Finding a way to protect one side in a public-policy dispute from true defamation while better protecting the right of citizens to voice their opinions may not be an easy task. But it's one New Jersey lawmakers should tackle.

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