Strategic lawsuits against public participation or SLAPPs are the cowards' way of quieting dissent; the legal equivalent of glove-covered brass knuckles. Developers especially are notorious for using this "instrument" to shut up environmentalists and neighbors who dared to speak out against their projects in public meetings. Aided and abetted (of course) by politicians they generously support who then repay such kindness by willingly allowing such thuggery in their jurisdictions.
Now comes the disturbing if not unexpected report from The New York Times that firms have been attempting to SLAPP consumers they appear to have annoyed and who have in turn posted comments on social media sites. Nothing like making the world think everything is OK with your company, generating nice publicity, ensuring strong customer satisfaction and retention, and making buyers feel happy about your company than bludgeoning those who feel otherwise.
Yes, when an individual gripe about a company online it can cost them business, as the SLAPPers and their pinstriped henchpeople claim. Sometimes the remarks are inaccurate and unfair. Yet this is no more so than what they say in private, by phone and e-mail and wherever they gather.
So what "rights" do such companies expect and want: the same as those enjoyed by repressive dissent-curbing regimes? Hey if they don't like freedom of speech there are plenty of countries who will be happy to accommodate them, with public servants that even more openly take their money to render services in kind.
If you're in business, you promote your firm in your marketing and PR, and in sales pitches, you're therefore visible, providing products and services whose consumption (as in the case of the towing firm mentioned in the Times article) directly impacts others. So if others think what you do is terrible and say so then suck it up. And maybe instead of making the calls to your lawyers maybe you ought to man up and look at what you did--however minor--to cause or exacerbate the situation, resolve it and learn from it so that such events won't happen again.
There are clear differences in free speech regarding libel and slander between what journalists can say in a story and in an editorial, regardless of media, what public officials can utter in the course of their responsibilities and what residents, legal or others can remark on, regardless of media. The standards vary in all three cases and for good reason. Journalists are expected by their work to be upheld to a higher level, with some leeway in fair comment, compared to those of residents; elected officials have privileged speech in their chambers.
Many U.S. states, such as California have anti-SLAPP laws, reports the Times and that there is a bill in Congress, sponsored by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas), that would create a federal anti-SLAPP law "modeled largely on California's statute. "
(The bill, H.R.4364, the Citizen Participation Act of 2009, has been referred to the Subcommittee on Courts and Competition Policy.)
"Because state laws vary in scope, many suits are still filed every year, according to legal experts," says the Times. "Now, with people musing publicly online and businesses feeling defenseless against these critics, the debate over the suits is shifting to the Web.
"We are beyond the low-tech era of people getting Slapped because of letters they wrote to politicians or testimony they gave at a City Council meeting," said George W. Pring, a University of Denver law professor who co-wrote the 1996 book "Slapps: Getting Sued For Speaking Out."
Consumers' comments about companies on social sites or other venues is free speech and as such perform an invaluable public service in a function democracy. For the smart firms it enables them to hear what the people are saying so that they can gain insights on their products, services, performance and service to improve them. That's the key to productivity, and prosperity. Free speech (and free trade) go hand in hand.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who is one of the country's most social media-savvy elected officials, should urge Congress to pass such legislation prohibiting SLAPPs. Other democratic freedom-loving countries such as Canada should do likewise. We can't afford to get SLAPPed into corporate-dictatorial silence.
(On the topic of social media and the social channel, TMC has an exciting new event where you can learn more about them, the Social Customer Summit that is taking place at ITEXPO West Oct.4-6 at the Los Angeles Convention Center)