Gov. Jared Polis on Monday signed a bill slapping back at so-called SLAPP suits, like one a Paonia activist says was filed against him by an energy company.

Polis signed House Bill 1324, which was sponsored by state Reps. Lisa Cutter, D-Evergreen, and Shannon Bird, D-Westminster, addressing so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.

"These lawsuits are an abuse of our judicial system — to threaten people and instill fear in them," Cutter said in a news release. "We should not be using the court systems against people, especially low-income people, who are simply exercising their right to speak up and this new law ensures that."

Delta County District Court Judge Steven Schultz has ruled twice in favor of Paonia resident Pete Kolbenschlag in a libel case brought by SG Interests. The company sued over comments Kolbenschlag posted on a newspaper website about SG's settlement with the federal government over alleged illegal bidding on oil and gas leases. In his second ruling, awarding attorney fees to Kolbenschlag, Schultz specifically found that the suit was frivolous and filed to retaliate against an industry critic, something SG Interests has denied.

However, Kolbenschlag told the House Judiciary Committee in April that the suit remains a hardship for him in terms of finances, stress and time demands because it's under appeal.

The bill signed by Polis provides for an expedited court process in suits where people say they were exercising their rights to free speech or to petition the government. It also authorizes award of attorney fees to defendants when judges approve their special motions to dismiss the suit under the sped-up process.

"Our legal system should not be used to frighten people away from the free exercise of their right to speak," Bird, who also is an attorney, said in the news release. "This law protects free speech and makes sure that our legal system is not abused."

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