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The Right of Free Speech vs. Online Business Reputations

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SLAPP Lawsuits and the Internet

In the mid-90’s, Oprah Whinfrey dedicated an entire episode of her talk show to the topic of mad-cow disease spreading around several countries, including the United States. Cattlemen in Texas formed a coalition, claiming that the show negatively affected future beef sales, and sued her in federal court on a tortious interference with business reputation claim. After spending an exuberant amount of money defending the suit, Whinfrey ultimately won, with the court finding that the cattleman failed to show she had made any false statements.

anti-slapp internet free speechSimilarly, in 2010, a towing company sued 21-year-old Justin Kurtz for creating a Facebook page dedicated to criticizing the company for wrongfully towing his car. This was a fairly unique lawsuit at the time because the comments were made on the Internet by a member of the general public, as opposed to a public figure with significant influence on traditional media.

Both of these suits are called SLAPP-suits. These types of lawsuits have triggered much state legislation aimed at protecting the general public under the 1st amendment right to free speech and the right to petition the government for unfair practices of big business.

These relatively new suits, targeting the general public for their negative comments on Internet sites like Yelp and Facebook, are the brain-child of a three decade old problem of lawsuits being filed by big business entities. Critics argue that these lawsuits against the everyday citizens are an attempt to silence them from exercising their right of free speech or their right to petition the government. These suits are called SLAPP suits, which stands for “Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation.”

Since the real motive of a SLAPP suit is to punish and deter criticism, the lawsuits have been successful in “chilling” free speech and discouraging the public from making future complaints against the company. There are many documented cases where defendants found it easier to remove their posts and remain silent.

States Have Tried to Protect Individual Free Speech with Anti-SLAPP Legislation

Public outcry against these suits resulted in many states enacting anti-SLAPP legislation. The purpose was to prevent an entity from filing a suit when the result would chill free speech. For example, California’s version of anti-SLAPP legislation is California Civil Procedure Code, section 425.16, which states that a person is protected from a suit if “any act of that person in furtherance of the person’s right to petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue.” If the person is sued anyway, they will lose. However, a relatively small number of states have legislation as broad as California and only about one half of the states have legislation at all.

Is the Internet Considered Media?

When a state legislature is drafting Anti-SLAPP legislation, they often leave out protections that would cover the media. The First Amendment does not protect the media for defamatory or libelous statements, for publishing information not of public concern, or for a statements that are false and published with actual malice. These restrictions don’t apply to the general public. A member of the general public would be protected for making statements about the same or similar subject matter. Remember, Oprah won her suit only because the court found the statements were true.

When the Internet became widespread, a federal statute called the Communications Decency Act was passed. Although its original wording restricted free speech on the Internet, the Supreme Court struck down those sections and included wording that ultimately protects sites like Yelp and YouTube. Unfortunately, only the owners of the sites are protected from a defamations suit resulting what other people post. The individuals is not explicitly protected.

Has the Internet Transformed the General Public into the Media?

The question stands, if a person voices their opinion on the Internet, which has become the new mass medium, have they transformed into an agent for the media, and thereby deserving of less protection? If so, what protections should they be awarded when it comes to potential SLAPP suits?

An increasingly popular view is that an individual retains their status as such, and is therefore not an agent of the media and is protected by Anti-SLAPP legislation. In fact, there have been a number of California cases where complaints for defamation arising from Internet postings were successfully defended by using the state’s anti-SLAPP statute.

Some of the protections for Internet postings have remained the same as those for which the traditional anti-SLAPP laws were established: to protect the general public. These protections include the right to free speech (online speech in this case), the fact that the cases have no legal merit, and the fact that the lawsuit creates a “chilling effect”, as explained earlier. The courts have also found that people on the Internet have the right to remain anonymous when posting criticism. Businesses have attempted to issue subpoenas to compel the person to reveal their identity, which has been successful in some cases and found to be a valid defense in others.

The fact remains, however, that there has failed to be consistent rulings regarding Internet use and the protections individuals are awarded. The problem remains that everyday citizens are often not financially equipped to defend lawsuits brought by big business and their criticisms are often silenced.

Modern Technology Calls for Broader Constitutional Rights

Since the states vary in the broadness of their anti-SLAPP legislation, further protection is sorely needed. This type of protection can only come from a broadly defined federal statute, which will force the states to protect their citizens. Recently, many have been advocating for a federal anti-SLAPP law to protect people in states that either do not have laws or have laws that are too broad to adequately protect an individual’s right to free speech.

As a strong supporter of First Amendment rights, my view remains: it is no longer valid that the media should be limited in protection. In a sense, we have all become the media because of the ease in which individuals can widely disseminate information on the Internet, creating just as much influence as traditional media. Therefore, if the goal of traditional anti-SLAPP legislation is to protect individual rights and to protect those who do not have the resources to defend themselves against big business, those protections should be expanded to the media. This would quell the controversy and prevent needless litigation. Most importantly, it would protect the constitutional rights that make the United States unique.

Nicole Shoener

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