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NAME: Nancy Hsu Fleming
WHAT SHE DOES: Gives civics lessons

Nancy Hsu Fleming was taught that American citizens should participate in public deliberation and government. An immigrant from Taiwan, she studied U.S. history prior to obtaining her citizenship in 1976. But in September 1992, she was broadsided by a pop civics quiz she’d never even thought to study for.

The test-giver was Hometown Properties, owner of a landfill in Fleming’s North Kingstown, R.I., community. When the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management called for public comment on proposed new groundwater quality standards for the state, Fleming wrote a letter to RIDEM detailing the Hometown landfill’s history of groundwater contamination and arguing that the proposed rules would enable Hometown to block efforts to clean up the site. Textbook civics, right?

Wrong. RIDEM responded, but did not address Fleming’s concerns. Then, five months later, she got a threatening letter from Hometown’s attorney demanding she either substantiate her claims, retract her statements to RIDEM, or face a lawsuit for defamation. She’d been “SLAPPed.” (A SLAPP is a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” a tactic frequently used by corporations to stifle grassroots activism.) “I felt vulnerable and chilled,” Fleming says. “I never expected this sort of thing to happen in this country.”

Fleming responded to the letter with a civics lesson for Hometown: “The U.S. Constitution grants me the right to petition [the] government…to close and clean up your client’s dump.”

Hometown carried through on its threat to sue. When the judge presiding over her case didn’t dismiss the lawsuit — it dragged on for four years — Fleming had to ratchet up her citizenship skills a notch. She took several field trips to the statehouse to testify in favor of anti-SLAPP legislation. It passed in July 1995, and in June 1996 the case against Fleming was finally dismissed.

“Nancy was a beacon of light for people who were afraid to speak out,” says state Rep. Suzanne Henseler, who supported Fleming’s efforts. “She had the moral courage and backbone to speak for a lot of people.”

Last April, Nancy Hsu Fleming got an “A” for her efforts from the PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) American Center and Newman’s Own, which presented her with their First Amendment Award. The cash prize that comes with the award is going toward building her “dream,” a private elementary school.

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