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.


as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot. That's what Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein tackles in her annual December column—"Billionaires Are Not the Answer"—about the state of journalism and our plans for the year ahead.

We can't afford to let independent reporting depend on the goodwill of the superrich: Please help Mother Jones build an alternative to oligarchy that is funded by and answerable to its readers. Please join us with a tax-deductible, year-end donation so we can keep going after the big stories without fear, favor, or false equivalency.


as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot.

Please read our annual column about the state of journalism and Mother Jones' plans for the year ahead, and help us build an alternative to oligarchy by supporting our people-powered journalism with a year-end gift today.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.