A bill moving through the Minnesota Senate would protect people from being sued in retaliation for calling police and, supporters say, prevent the expensive, frivolous lawsuits some were forced to endure.

The legislation, which passed the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, would clarify the state's anti-SLAPP statutes, which are designed to protect people who speak out in governmental activities or situations from being sued. (SLAPP stands for "strategic litigation against public participation.")

Interest in such protections came to light in 2010, when Jeffrey L. Nielsen was charged with disorderly conduct, theft and two traffic offenses after he was identified as the driver of a vehicle with campaign signs belonging to now-Grant City Council Member Steve Bohnen. Nielsen was convicted of disorderly conduct while the other charges were dropped. Nielsen then sued Grant resident Keith Mueller, who reported him, along with Bohnen and Washington County, alleging fraud, conspiracy and malicious prosecution. That led to years of courtroom battles and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills for the defendants, who ultimately had their cases dismissed.

Mueller told the Judiciary Committee that clarifying the state's anti-SLAPP statutes to include calling the police as an act of public participation could have prevented his ordeal.

"While it's too late for me to benefit from this law change, it's important to me to clarify that reports to law enforcement are an act of public participation," Mueller told the committee.

Bohnen testified of his four years of legal distractions: "I cannot stress enough the pressures that come with this type of legal attack. I owe in excess of $1 million in legal bills, and my desire to call law enforcement has been effectively chilled."

Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriff's Association, said Nielsen's lawsuit against the Washington County Sheriff's Office was unlike any he had seen in 40 years. He supports the legislation.

The bill heads next to the Senate floor. A House version also awaits a floor vote.