VICTORIA - The threat of being sued for speaking out against major resource project proposals or initiatives such as golf course expansions in neighbourhoods has been greatly reduced with the introduction of freedom of expression legislation, British Columbia's attorney general says.

David Eby said the Protection of Public Participation Act will prevent the use of lawsuits to silence critics with unfair or costly legal action.

The NDP promised during last year's election campaign it would protect people from strategic lawsuits against public participation, often referred to as SLAPP suits.

“The intent behind this legislation is to really avoid the situation where someone's put up a blog post or they've expressed themselves in a newspaper where they've provided information in public and they get a threatening letter that says they are going to be sued for defamation unless you immediately retract it,” Eby said.

The proposed law, set to be debated next fall, would allow defendants to ask courts to dismiss lawsuits on the grounds they don't allow the defendant to speak freely on a matter of public interest, he said.

“The ability of citizens to participate freely in a discussion and debate on matters of public interest without fear of undue legal threat is vital to a vibrant democratic society.”

Earlier this year, former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh, attorney general Wally Oppal and numerous civil rights and environmental groups and the Union of B.C. Municipalities called on the government to introduce anti-SLAPP legislation.

Eby said the legislation is modelled after Ontario's Protection of Public Participation Act, adopted three years ago.

Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said his organization has been lobbying for an anti-SLAPP law for more than a decade.

“We talk to folks all the time around the province who tell us they feel afraid of speaking out, whether it's a development being put in behind their place or something that's going to be changed about a local golf course, all the way up to large petro-chemical and hydro-electric facilities,” he said.

Paterson said the legislation enables people facing lawsuits to have a court quickly identify whether a suit infringes on their right to freedom of expression based on public interest.

Plaintiffs will likely think twice before filing so-called SLAPP suits once the legislation becomes law, he said, adding the law would not rule out suits by businesses, developers and others who allege defamation.