If it’s truth, it’s not slander
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised…the web has made it so easy for anyone to slam anyone or anything, it was inevitable that those with the thickest wallets and thinnest skins — i.e., corporations — would do their darndest to stifle criticism. And sure enough, the slander and libel suits are starting to mount up.
The Times chronicles one case, of a young fellow whose car was legally parked, yet got towed anyway. It cost him $118 to ransom the car — and he got so mad that he created a Facebook page lambasting T&J Towing, the company that towed his car. Within a couple days, 800 residents had weighed in with their own complaints.
So, did T&J — which was infamous with the local Better Business Bureau for towing legally parked cars — apologize and promise to mend its ways? Ha! This is America. It sued for defamation, saying the criticisms hurt its business and demanding $750,000.
This does give chutzpah a new dimension of meaning. It tows legally parked cars (its excuse: the parking permit wasn’t easily visible), forces people to ransom them, and then sues the people for howling loudly and publicly?
The way i see it, the company owes the kid $118, plus extra for time wasted redeeming his car, plus punitive damages — but this is a post about free speech, so that’s besides the point. The point is, whatever happened to truth being the best defense?
Now I’m not one of those people who thinks the web is a lawless wild west, where anything goes. I do believe that the same rules should apply to cyberspace as have always applied to print — i.e., no one should be allowed to knowingly make false accusations against a human being or corporate entity. But accurate complaints about shoddy practices? Bring them on.
This is a corporate nuisance suit, aimed at cowing critics. And the scary part is, this kind of intimidating tactic predates the web:
Some First Amendment lawyers 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.
But the ease with which people can vent on the web brings with it more chances to criticize — and inevitably, more nuisance suits aimed at stifling that criticism.
What’s heartening, though, is that Justin Kurtz, the kid who posted the Facebook page, ain’t backing down. The way he sees it, he posted a true account of what the company did to him, and if that hurts its business — well, it should! And, in fact, the publicity surrounding the suit has garnered him 12,000 members on his Facebook page. (Take THAT, T&J Towing!)
Another reason for optimism: 27 states have anti-Slapp laws, and Washington is considering a national version.
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.
“Just as petition and free speech rights are so important that they require specific constitutional protections, they are also important enough to justify uniform national protections against Slapps,” said Mark Goldowitz, director of the California Anti-Slapp Project, which helped draft the bill.