SPECIAL REPORT: Slapped for speaking out - WECT TV6-WECT.com:News, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

SPECIAL REPORT: Slapped for speaking out

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WILMINGTON, NC (WSFX) - "As a physician I am sworn to protect the health of the people I take care of in any way possible," said Dr. David Hill, Pediatrician.

In February of 2010, he and a woman named Kayne Darrell took concerns about Titan cement coming to New Hanover County straight to the county commissioners.

By February of 2011 both were facing a $75,000 lawsuit. Titan called the public comments slander and in the lawsuit claimed they were made knowingly without facts just to cause public friction. Dr. Hill says otherwise.

"After researching the affects of the sorts of pollutants that cement plants put out, I was quite convinced that increases in those pollutants in our area would endanger the very children that I take care of, including my own children," said Dr. Hill.

Animals are Susan Barrett's passion.  She is the founder of North Carolina Shelter Rescue Inc. "I'm definitely a North Carolina animal advocate, I do rescue shelter animals that are on death row," said Susan Barrett, North Carolina Rescue League.

She and four other people, including two from Southport and Whiteville, were sued individually for a total of $150,000  for speaking out on facebook about another animal rescue group called Seven Star Sanctuary. That group has people in Michigan, Wisconsin and England.

"Some of us kind of watch how many animals someone is pulling. This particular group out of Michigan started pulling a tremendous amount of animals from Columbus County. Then when we started pulling the kennel cards but none of their names were on any of the kennel cards. They were actually using a NC registered rescue 501C-3," said Barrett.

Barrett and others then found out the same group was taking the animals they took out of the shelter to several veterinarian offices and leaving them and enormous vet bills behind. We found at least seven vets offices that cared for these animals.

We did a news story on one in Pender County that has yet to be paid in full. Other vet's offices involved are in Robeson County and Dunn. The vet bills totaled more than a $130,000. When I called those offices, I found many have not been paid in full yet. And many have cut all ties with Seven Star Sanctuary.

It was after all this happened, that Barrett and the others started posting things on facebook.

"We only posted exactly what took place here in North Carolina that the Vet's backed up with their own unpaid bills and with the kennel cards from the shelter," said Barrett. But Seven Star Sanctuary sued saying the posts damaged their credibility.

But these citizens were speaking their beliefs. And in a country filled with free speech, some say, it's a dangerous precedent to have citizens getting sued.

"It's not just what's going on with my case. I've started researching it we have a tremendous amount of these slap suits going on in North Carolina. They're clogging up our court system that is already over burdened. The legislators here need to realize what's going on and jump on board like some of the other states do and get that anti-slapp regulation passed," said Barrett.

State Rep. Susi Hamilton believes legislation called ANTI-SLAPP is needed. SLAPP stands for strategic litigation against public participation.

"It provides them with some protection for speaking their opinion and giving their thoughts to whatever the issue is at hand without being threatened by a lawsuit by a larger industry or organization with deep pockets and lawyers and attorneys and staff that can pursue those kinds of lawsuits where in the case of the private citizen who is speaking out about a certain issue those citizens would be responsible for their own legal fees, " said Rep. Susi Hamilton.

"I had no idea that I could be persecuted in that way for doing what I felt was my job," said Dr. Hill.

Right now there are 28 states with ANTI-SLAPP laws. The North Carolina bill introduced by Representative Hamilton did not make it out of committee last year. But Hamilton says it could be brought up again this year.

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