Free speech has very strong protections in the United States. Not only do we have laws like CDA 230 that allow review sites like Yelp to exist, but we also have very strong defenses ingrained both in our Constitution and in our statutes. Unfortunately, there are aspects of the legal system that are easily abused; people too often use lawsuits to intimidate others and stifle their speech.
One recent example took place in Virginia over the past few months. Jane Perez wrote a negative review on Yelp of a contractor she had hired. In the review, Perez claimed Dietz had damaged her home and allegedly implied he had stolen her jewelry. Claiming injury to his reputation, the contractor, Christopher Dietz, sued Perez for $750,000 and sought a preliminary injunction, which would have removed the review from Yelp even before a court deemed it true or false.
What Dietz did is known as a SLAPP, or a strategic lawsuit against public participation. These lawsuits usually use claims of defamation and demands of exorbitant amounts of money in order to stifle speech. Slightly over half of the states have anti-SLAPP laws on the books. These laws give individuals a course of action to get frivolous or intimidating lawsuits dropped. Virginia, however, does not have one of these laws—nor is there one on a federal level.
Last month, the Fairfax County Circuit Court granted in part Dietz' request for an injunction, forcing Perez to take out certain parts of her Yelp review. The major problem with injunctions like these are that they impose prior restraints before a court has actually found that any defamation has taken place, thus leading to a chill on speech that may be perfectly lawful. With the help of Paul Alan Levy at Public Citizen, on December 28, the Virginia Supreme Court reversed the injunction [PDF]. The lawsuit will probably carry on in front of a jury, but the injunction—in effect a form of censorship—is no more.
This whole chain of events led Yelp to call for, once again, a federal anti-SLAPP law. A federal law would not only bring anti-SLAPP protections to states that do not yet have them, but also provide a protective baseline across all states.
Anti-SLAPP laws are crucial to protecting speech both online and off, and this sort of law should exist nationwide, protecting all citizens from wild claims and unreasonable lawsuits. Join EFF and the Public Participation Project in asking your member of Congress to support a strong federal anti-SLAPP law.