Imagine that you just posted a review online, speaking out against someone or a company that legitimately mistreated or misled you. You obviously have every right to be displeased and to express yourself. But what if that person or company who already wronged you took it one step further? Next thing you know, you’re being harassed, threatened and eventually, you even get slapped with an outrageous lawsuit – quite literally. The only way you can fight back is to hire a lawyer, which could potentially cost you thousands and thousands of dollars.
What if you lost? What would you do? Do you think this can’t happen to you?
While the intent of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution is to preserve freedom of speech, it is not an absolute form of protection. The unfortunate reality within which we live today is that there are legal methods by which censorship can still be forced upon an individual, groups of people, or organizations.
SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, is the current weapon of choice for those who seek to extort silence from anyone who has spoken out against them in a public space or forum. In today’s world, this public platform is often times the Internet and the speaker could very well be a person just like you.
Scambook is no stranger to SLAPPs and understanding how and why they are utilized by entities such as companies and corporations is critical knowledge, especially in today’s world where there are a myriad of ways to publicly voice your opinion. We would simply like to take this opportunity to spread the word in case you aren’t quite familiar with SLAPPs yet.
How SLAPPs Operate and Who Can Become a Target
While SLAPPs can come in the form of various lawsuits, one of the most common is a defamation suit. Rather than actually seeking to claim victory in court, those that use SLAPPs are more so attempting to drown their adversaries in a mountain of legal fees while trying to fight back – with the idea being that their target will eventually fold and concede silence.
Anyone who openly states their opinion against a person or organization can potentially become the center of a SLAPP. Whether you speak negatively against a company for failing to deliver what was promised or your local government official for unethical practices, you definitely want to be aware of how a SLAPP might be thrust upon you as retaliation.
Case Example No. 1: Wright Development Group vs. John Walsh, Pioneer Press and Sun-Times Media LLC
In 2010, the Illinois Supreme Court set a legal precedent in SLAPP cases by reversing a 2008 trial and appellate court decision that ruled John Walsh, president of his Chicago community’s condo association, was not protected by the state’s anti-SLAPP law for comments he made to a local newspaper against the Wright Development Group, the company that was renovating condos in the building he lived in.
Both Walsh and the Pioneer Press were sued by the Wright Development Group for defamation in response to Walsh’s comments that brought attention to problems that his building encountered from renovation and conversion. While the trial and appellate court ruled that Walsh was not protected by Illinois’ anti-SLAPP law, the state’s Supreme Court chose to grant him immunity under the same law – through a 7-0 decision nonetheless.
Through their ruling, the Illinois Supreme Court widened the scope and definition of what falls under the protection of the state’s anti-SLAPP law. Walsh was consequently awarded coverage of his attorney’s fees and costs, which were reportedly estimated at $200,000.
Case Example No. 2: Sharper Image Corp. vs. Consumers Union
Sharper Image sued Consumers Union back in 2004 for an unfavorable review of a Sharper Image air cleaning product. Consumers Union wasted little time and shot straight for California’s anti-SLAPP law to have the case dismissed.
The court did indeed throw out Sharper Image’s lawsuit on the grounds that the company had failed to reasonably disprove the statements made by Consumers Union in their review of the air cleaning system. Consumers Union was subsequently rewarded reimbursement of legal fees and costs they had incurred – a total of $525,000, which they received in 2005.
Case Example No. 3: American Heritage Capital vs. Dinah Gonzalez
All Dinah Gonzalez was doing was following American Heritage Capital’s notice to her that she was eligible for a loan. However, Gonzalez soon found herself being abruptly rejected upon applying for the loan she was told she could receive. She took to the Internet and posted a handful of reviews on various sites expressing her discontent towards AHC’s loan application protocol.
It wasn’t long before American Heritage Capital caught wind of Gonzalez’s critical online reviews at which point, they began pestering her to take them down. Gonzalez refused and AHC soon filed a defamation and tortious interference with prospective business relationships lawsuit against her.
One of the threatening messages AHC sent to Gonzalez even stated, “You started this. You can end it. Otherwise I will end it for you, and it won’t be pretty.”
Dinah Gonzalez leaned on Texas’ anti-SLAPP law and moved to have the case dismissed. The court ruled in her favor, holding that she had simply used the Internet to voice her negative experience with AHC and express her frustrations. The court further found that AHC exploited the legal system by attempting to have Gonzalez remove her posts by force.
In the end, American Heritage Capital was ordered by the presiding judge to pay all of the fees and costs incurred by Dinah Gonzalez during the lawsuit. The ending may have very well been vastly different if Texas had not had an anti-SLAPP law in place.
What We Can Do – Anti-SLAPP
As things currently stand, a little less than half of the states in the U.S. have anti-SLAPP laws that can be referenced to fight against the SLAPPs. However, the range of application differs state to state. What we need is anti-SLAPP legislation that functions on a federal level to truly protect freedom of speech on a national scale.
The case examples that we’ve referenced are but a few scenarios where an anti-SLAPP law essentially saved the day, albeit after more of a fight for someone like John Walsh. However, it is clear that overcoming a SLAPP suit and reaching a favorable judgment can become substantially more difficult should you live in a state without anti-SLAPP laws.
Without a federal anti-SLAPP law, the outcome of SLAPPs will still remain a case-by-case basis even in states with anti-SLAPP laws because some are defined more narrowly or loosely than others. This means that while some cases may be quickly dismissed, others could indeed victimize the opinionated speaker(s) and force them into a reluctant retreat.
You can discover much more information on all things anti-SLAPP at www.anti-slapp.org. They have other great stories you can check out and also provide instructions on how we can encourage Members of Congress to seek federal anti-SLAPP legislation.
Your voice could serve as a critical piece to this very delicate puzzle. Without anti-SLAPP laws that protect American citizens and their right to freedom of speech nationally, SLAPPs will continue acting as a weapon for big players with deep pockets to use against rightful dissent.
Do you or anyone you know have experience in dealing with SLAPPs? If that’s the case, we strongly urge you to share your story with us by submitting a complaint on Scambook or shooting us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a fight that we must engage together as a united community. Please don’t hesitate to share!