Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Slapp Suits

Consumers find themselves in court for online comments:

After a towing company hauled Justin Kurtz’s car from his apartment complex parking lot, despite his permit to park there, Mr. Kurtz, 21, a college student in Kalamazoo, Mich., went to the Internet for revenge.

Outraged at having to pay $118 to get his car back, Mr. Kurtz created a Facebook page called “Kalamazoo Residents against T&J Towing.” Within two days, 800 people had joined the group, some posting comments about their own maddening experiences with the company.

T&J filed a defamation suit against Mr. Kurtz, claiming the site was hurting business and seeking $750,000 in damages.

The towing company’s lawyer said that it was justified in removing Mr. Kurtz’s car because the permit was not visible, and that the Facebook page was costing it business and had unfairly damaged its reputation.
LOL. I'm still trying to wrap my brain around the idea that a towing company can have a "damaged reputation." But beyond that, this is just another example of big (and small) businesses and governments using something called a "Slapp" suit to intimidate critics who make negative comments.

Some First Amendment lawyers see the case differently. They consider the lawsuit an example of the latest incarnation of a decades-old legal maneuver known as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or Slapp.

The label has traditionally referred to meritless defamation suits filed by businesses or government officials against citizens who speak out against them. The plaintiffs are not necessarily expecting to succeed — most do not — but rather to intimidate critics who are inclined to back down when faced with the prospect of a long, expensive court battle.

Many states have anti-Slapp laws, and Congress is considering legislation to make it harder to file such a suit. The federal bill, in the House Subcommittee on Courts and Competition Policy, would enable a defendant who believes he is being sued for speaking out or petitioning on a public matter to seek to have the suit dismissed. Under the proposed federal law, if a case is dismissed for being a Slapp, the plaintiff would have to pay the defendant’s legal fees.
And I would add, collect damages as well. This kind of sissified bullying and abuse of the legal system is indicative of our thin-skinned culture where everyone fancies themselves a "victim" of something or another.

As the coda to the story notes, it often ends up backfiring on the organization filing the Slapp suit: through the process of discovery, they end up having their own "dirty laundry" aired.

On April 30, Mr. Kurtz and his lawyers asked a judge to dismiss the suit by T&J, which has received a failing grade from the local Better Business Bureau for complaints over towing legally parked cars. Mr. Kurtz is also countersuing, claiming that T&J is abusing the legal process.

“There’s no reason I should have to shut up because some guy doesn’t want his dirty laundry out,” Mr. Kurtz said. “It’s the power of the Internet, man.”

Be careful what you wish for.

No comments: