Online Critics: Beware of being SLAPP-ed

As consumers, we have all experienced hair-pulling, fist-slamming experiences with companies that have left us outraged, confused and upset. With social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook at our finger tips, it has become incredibly easy to air our greivances publicly and attract the attention and comments of other distressed consumers. However, with the rise in popularity of these sites, companies are taking notice and the platforms that social media provided are now turning into court battles and lawsuits.

An article by The New York Times goes on to write about a college student, Justin Kurtz, who created a Facebook page called “Kalamazoo Residents against T&J towing” after finding that this car had been towed, regardless of his permit, costing him $118 in expenses. Two days after the creation of the group, 800 people had already joined, many posting their own comments about bad experiences with the company.

T&J towing decided to take their own action and filed a defamation suit against the student, seeking $750,000 in damages caused by the Facebook group. The company’s lawyer went on to state that the Facebook page was costing the company business and had unfairly created a damaging and poor reputation because Kurtz’s permit was not visible and was therefore held legally responsible for being towed.

However, many lawyers are seeing the case differently and are referring to T&J’s action as a legal manuever known as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, otherwise known as Slapp.

It is an age-old action that many businesses have used not to necessarily win damages but to intimidate critics and their potential followers by threatening them with heavy fines and overdrawn court hearings.

Currently, 27 states already have anti-slapp laws and Congress is now considering a bill that will make it more difficult for businesses to file such suits and would eventually lead to federal anti-slapp laws. Under the proposed federal law, if a case is being dismissed for Slapp, the plantiff would be responsible for paying the defendant’s legal fees.

So it all boils down to one question: To what extent do we have the right to free speech?

What do you think? Are we legally entitled to use sites such as Facebook and Twitter as a platform for consumers to voice our grievances? Or do businesses have the right to take legal action to protect their reputation and interests?

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