Internet Law

Federal bill backed by Yelp would increase protections for online commenters

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A federal bill that is backed by Yelp is designed to protect online commenters and others who speak out about matters of public concern when they face meritless defamation suits.

The Speak Free Act (PDF) would require a plaintiff filing a suit against commenters or speakers in such cases to demonstrate at the outset that the suit is likely to succeed, Mother Jones reports.

Laurent Crenshaw, who handles national policy for Yelp, spoke with Mother Jones about the proposed law. “This issue is really one that hits close to the heart for Yelp,” Crenshaw said. “The concern is that these types of lawsuits, even if not incredibly common, will have a chilling effect on people’s engagement online.”

To invoke the law, the defendant would have to file a motion to dismiss and make a prima facie showing that the suit is based on statements about a matter of public concern, or in connection with an official proceeding. Then the burden switches to the plaintiff to demonstrate a likelihood of success. The suit is dismissed if the showing can’t be made, and the defendant may collect legal fees.

Online speakers who want to protect their identity could also invoke the federal law when trying to quash a subpoena, according to a “Lawsplainer” by Popehat.

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia already have so-called SLAPP laws intended to discourage lawsuits against those who speak out on matters of public concern. In the 22 states without such laws, defendants could transfer suits to federal court to obtain protection under the federal law, according to the Media Alliance, which supports the law.

There would be no need to satisfy the traditional requirements for diversity jurisdiction to obtain removal, Popehat says. “It could effectively federalize defamation law,” the blog says.

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