Yes, there is a fine line between offering an honest opinion and being “brutal” with the truth. In today’s world of social media and online reviews, millions of people partake in the opportunity to express their opinions, both, good and bad, and sometimes plain brutal. Before reacting to that harsh personal view by filing a lawsuit, understand that everybody has the right to freedom of speech. The Hill, Michael Beckerman, explains why there is a fine line you may not cross.
Summer is almost here, which means sun, fun, and summer vacations. It also means many of us are going to be spending time browsing online reviews to preview the good, the bad, and the ugly on travel locations.
Imagine a world in which a hotel company could sue customers because they didn’t like their stay. What if your local burger joint could sue patrons who wrote critical reviews on a website like Yelp or TripAdvisor? Lawsuits like this would not only make it harder for consumers to receive beneficial information about how to spend their time and money, but it would also violate our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech.
Disturbingly, this kind of outlandish policing of free speech content on the Internet is happening. As the Internet has driven increased participation in the online marketplace, users who create reviews for everything from restaurants to tow-truck companies are facing lawsuits simply for speaking their minds and expressing their opinions.
The lawsuits in question are called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs. SLAPPs jeopardize free speech and undercut the freedoms provided to Americans by the First Amendment. Allowing individuals and companies to use lawsuits, or even the threat of a lawsuit, in order to discourage speech that they disagree with not only harasses members of the public, but it can also have chilling effects on economic and political participation.
The Internet provides users with unique platforms for expressing opinions on important issues. From the more than 320 million user reviews on TripAdvisor, to the 100 million local reviews on Yelp, to product reviews on Amazon and eBay, online expression helps consumers make informed decisions. It also helps good businesses by injecting transparency into the market and providing valuable information that consumers have come to expect and rely upon.
Unfortunately, SLAPPs work to inculcate a culture of censorship throughout the U.S. economy and in social discourse, thereby endangering practices that are essential to the principles upon which the U.S. was founded. Every year, thousands are sued for speaking out in public forums such as online platforms. These cases are incredibly burdensome, both in terms of time and money. The average SLAPP case lasts 40 months, and the average claim of damages is a staggering $9.1 million.
Fortunately, there is a growing movement to address these frivolous lawsuits. Congress is working to protect consumers from SLAPPs through bipartisan legislation introduced by Rep. Blake Farenthold and Rep. Anna Eshoo, entitled the SPEAK FREE Act of 2015.
Currently, many states have weak, and oftentimes conflicting, laws to address these SLAPP suits, while 22 states lack any kind of anti-SLAPP protection. The SPEAK FREE Act would resolve this problem by putting in place a nationwide, uniform structure to oversee SLAPP suits.
Furthermore, the SPEAK FREE act contains fee-shifting provisions so that individuals who win an anti-SLAPP case are not forced to pay the copious legal fees that arise from having to defend themselves. SPEAK FREE will enact strong protections for anyone who has ever voiced an opinion online so that they don’t have to worry about unfounded lawsuits that violate their Constitutional rights.
This is a crucial bill that will ensure current and future generations of Internet users can exercise their First Amendment rights online. It’s time for elected officials to protect their constituents, even if their online opinions don’t align with the perspectives of others. It’s the least we can do in a country where freedom of speech is a right, not a privilege.