San Francisco - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed suit in federal court to block threats aimed at LawyerRatingz.com, a website that allows Internet users to write comments and rate attorneys.
A Florida law firm – the Law Offices of Adrian Philip Thomas, P.A. – claims to have lost business based upon negative ratings and reviews posted on LawyerRatingz.com, which included complaints about Mr. Thomas, his billing rates, and his proposed contingency fees. The firm repeatedly threatened legal action against LawyerRatingz.com unless all comments – positive or negative – were removed from the site. LawyerRatingz.com, represented by EFF, filed suit Wednesday against Thomas and his firm, asking for a judicial ruling that LawyerRatingz.com is not legally responsible for material posted by third parties as well as an end to the baseless legal threats.
"Mr. Thomas's claims are meritless and run afoul of bedrock legal principles protecting website operators," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman. "Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act categorically protects providers of 'interactive computer services' from suits such as this one seeking to make them responsible for the speech of their users. Without such protections, valuable sites like LawyerRatingz.com – or Facebook or Yelp or individual blogs that rely upon user comments – simply could not exist."
This is the latest example of legal threats issued to website operators that imply heightened reputational rights on behalf of professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, and demanding that critical reviews be removed. In a 2011 case, a California dentist sued review site Yelp, seeking to hold it responsible for critical reviews posted by a former patient. The case was ultimately dismissed and the dentist was forced to pay the reviewer's and Yelp's attorneys' fees. A website developed by Santa Clara and Berkeley law schools, DoctoredReviews.com, documents efforts by doctors to prohibit critical reviews of their care. In the declaratory relief suit filed Wednesday, LawyerRatingz.com argues that complaints about third party posts have to be taken up with reviewers themselves.
"CDA 230 plainly provides legal protection against these kinds of threats, but small website operators are nonetheless coerced by meritless demands that would ordinarily be too expensive to litigate," Zimmerman said. "Given the critical role played by intermediaries such as LawyerRatingz.com in providing platforms for Internet users to express their views, it is important to give force to those protections and encourage website operators to fight against baseless claims like these."
For the full complaint:
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation