Free speech online requires anti-SLAPP legislation

Federal response needed to stop meritless lawsuits intended to silence critics

Perhaps you've read of the Michigan college student who responded to his car being towed, despite his having a parking permit, by posting a Facebook page entitled "Kalamamazoo Residents against T&J Towing." It seems he wasn't the only one tired of getting an indiscriminate hook from T&J and his protest soon attracted hundreds of like-minded victims.

It also attracted a lawsuit by T&J, which figured the best way to squelch such criticism was to intimidate its leader into silence.

The good news is that the publicity surrounding this case may help motivate lawmakers in Washington to finally pass a federal law that will protect the free-speech rights of Internet users to express themselves without fear of meritless legal retaliation by deep-pocketed businesses.

From this morning's New York Times:

Web sites like Facebook, Twitter and Yelp have given individuals a global platform on which to air their grievances with companies. But legal experts say the soaring popularity of such sites has also given rise to more cases ... in which a business sues an individual for posting critical comments online.

The towing company's lawyer said that it was justified in removing (the) car because the permit was not visible, and that the Facebook page was costing it business and had unfairly damaged its reputation.

Some First Amendment lawyers see the case differently. They consider the lawsuit an example of the latest incarnation of a decades-old legal maneuver known as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or Slapp.

A number of states already have laws that attempt to deter this type of legal intimidation, but a federal version is necessary given the nature of the Internet and this country's well established sue-first mentality.

This will be a classic test for a Congress that all too routinely aligns itself business interests.

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