First Amendment

More and More Lawsuits Over Rants on the Web that Blast Businesses

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A Kalamazoo, Mich., college student outraged over a $118 charge to retrieve his towed car he says was unjustified has found himself with a defamation lawsuit from T&J Towing seeking $750,000 in damages.

A lawyer for T&J Towing told the New York Times that Justin Kurtz’s permit to park in his complex’s lot wasn’t visible, so their towing charge was justified. They say a Facebook page he created, Kalamazoo Residents Against T&J Towing, that now has more than 12,000 members has cost T&J Towing business and unfairly damaged its reputation.

“This case raises interesting questions,” the towing company’s lawyer, Richard Burnham told the New York Times. “What are the rights to free speech? And even if what he said is false, which I am convinced, is his conduct the proximate cause of our loss?”

Some First Amendment lawyers see suits like these as a resurgence of so-called SLAPP suits, strategic lawsuits against public participation. The Times says 27 states have anti-SLAPP measures on the books: Michigan does not.

Websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp now make what used to be lone voices in the wilderness much louder than they once were. Now a criticism of a business or individual potentially becomes a permanent record “as you hit ‘publish’ on the computer,” First Amendment lawyer Marc Randazza told the New York Times. “It goes global within minutes.”

One group, Medical Justice, has tried a preventive tack by creating mutual privacy agreements that prohibit patients from rating their doctors on websites by transferring to the physician the copyright of any of the patient’s online content about the doctor. These agreements have not yet been tested in court.

A suit similar to T&J Towing’s was filed last year by Horizon Group Management in Chicago against tenant Amanda Bonnen over the following tweet reply made to one of her 20 followers: “You should just come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s OK.”

At the time Horizon filed its suit, Randazza wrote at The Legal Satyricon that he thought Horizon was destroying its own reputation by filing the anti-free-speech lawsuit. “Apparently nobody ever informed Horizon that the first step in getting out of a hole is to stop digging.”

Horizon’s case against Bonnen was dismissed with prejudice in January 2010, the Chicago Tribune reported at the time.

But the Times said Randazza conceded that often the most practical approach for a SLAPP defendant is to avoid a lawsuit by taking back the offending content and that the cost of defending a SLAPP suit “could easily wipe out the average person’s savings before the case is half done.” Under a proposed federal law, if a case is dismissed as a SLAPP suit, the plaintiff would have to pay the defendant’s legal fees, the Times said.

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