Protecting Internet Users from Speech-Suppressing Lawsuits
Americans rely on the free speech-intensive internet every day. Reviews on Amazon.com make it easier to decide to buy Cascade Pods or powdered dishwasher detergent; Uber driver scores help pinpoint safe and comfortable travel; Yelp reviews connect weary workers with Monday-night delivery food; message boards share ideas on anything from how to hack life’s simple annoyances to how to help care for a special needs child. The internet is a more robust and rewarding space because all are free to share opinions and experiences.
However, litigation aimed at silencing detractors presents a risk to freedom of speech on the internet. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) attempt to scare honest reviewers into silence because of the fear of costly litigation. Most online reviewers are average people who may not have the budget to pay for an attorney. A legal threat and the financial risk it imposes is often more than enough impetus for someone to just remove the paragraph they wrote online. The cumulative impact of these one-off decisions to remove reviews, however, is the strategic censorship of criticism and the erosion of free speech.
Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have passed reforms to make it easier for victims of SLAPPs to get these lawsuits dismissed. The ALEC Public Participation Protection Act, which mirrors reforms passed in Oregon, California and Texas, allows defendants who believe they have been sued because of their expression of free speech to request the court immediately consider the merits of the case and, if found to be frivolous, dismiss it. This expedited review minimizes legal costs and enables more victims to push back against injury to their free speech rights.
While many might wish they didn’t have to see the Facebook feed of their crazy Uncle who pushes free speech to its limit, Americans are fortunate to live in a country where frustration over online overshares is more prevalent than the fear of financial ruin, or safety threats, for having shared honestly.
Anti-SLAPP statutes safeguard free speech, and support the open public debate that is essential to the success of the capitalist system our nation has championed.