Checking out the online reviews of an unfamiliar company's product or service before you buy is now a reflex for most of us. A quick click over to Yelp, Angie's List, TripAdvisor, and Yahoo Local Listings let's you know what other customers think of their experiences with the businesses and service providers from which you're thinking to make a purchase. And we've all become adept at figuring out when a online rater is just a whiny complaint-monger and when she is fairly describing her experience.
Businesses that get low ratings can do two things: Fix the problem or try to shut up the critical customers. In the second case, some companies have taken to filing lawsuits that claim their online critic has "defamed" them and demand that the rating be taken down. Such meritless lawsuits have come to be called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs. The goal of a SLAPP is to intimidate people who disagree with the filer and cause them financial pain through legal fees required to defend against the lawsuits. All too often SLAPPs are effective as relatively penurious critics agree to apologize for or "correct" their earlier evaluations in order to avoid the hassles and costs of defending themselves in court.
In an effort to fix this abuse of legal process, a bipartisan coalition in the House of Representatives has introduced the Securing Participation, Engagement, and Knowledge Freedom by Reducing Egregious Efforts Act or the SPEAK FREE Act. The Act would allow a person who is SLAPPed to file a special motion to dismiss such lawsuits and collect legal fees from the person or entity that filed the initial SLAPP.
Representatives from eight free market, pro-consumer groups just sent today a letter in support of the SPEAK FREE Act to the House Judiciary Committee. The groups involved include the R Street Institute, FreedomWorks, the Center for Individual Freedom, Tech Freedom, the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, the Niskanen Center, the Insitute for Liberty, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
The letter points out "multitudes of Americans fall victim to lawsuits called SLAPPs ... that are aimed at unfairly intimidating and silencing them." The letter observes that online reviews are an important facet of the digital economy that helps to give consumers confidence to deal with unfamiliar businesses. "Unfortunately, online reviews increasingly are targeted by SLAPPs, as unscrupulous businessmen seek to censor their critics, rather than working to improve the experiences, products, or services they offer," they note.
Free speech is a bulwark against both government and private abuses. Citizens should not be afraid to speak their minds on any topic. SLAPPs need to be slapped down sooner rather than later.