Don’t Get SLAPPed for Posting Your Opinions Online
The Internet offers a treasure trove of consumers’ opinions on everything from car tires to dentists. So it’s inevitable that freedom of expression would bump up against some limits.
Lawsuits known as SLAPPs – for Strategic Limitation Against Public Participation – present a growing problem for freedom of speech on the Internet. While not everyone can avoid getting SLAPPed with a meritless yet expensive lawsuit, there are steps you can take to avoid it when you express your opinion online.
SLAPPs on the Rise
Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia currently have laws that limit the filing of suits designed to interfere with someone’s effort to secure government intervention in a situation or bring information to the public on a matter of public importance.
“Businesses and executives are increasingly suing individuals who exercise their First Amendment rights by posting messages on review sites, Internet financial message boards, or in online chat rooms,” according to the California Anti-SLAPP Project.
“While some of these lawsuits may have merit, others are merely retaliatory SLAPPs — attempts by the plaintiffs to silence their critics and intimidate other Internet users to keep their criticisms to themselves.”
What can you do if you want to let your friends on Facebook know they should never get their hair cut by the butcher who just condemned you to hats for months?
Do Your Homework
First, know your state’s laws. “Awareness of the anti-SLAPP remedies available in your state can give you the ability to defeat such a suit (relatively) swiftly and at low cost,” says Jeffrey P. Hermes, the director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
Second, do your research and make sure what you’re saying is true – and that you can back it up with hard evidence.
“It is is also important for those who leave reviews to remember that they are responsible for the truth of their statements,” notes Hermes. “Although mistakes happen, the law generally requires those who publish online to take reasonable care to verify any factual statements that they post.”
Add the Facts
Defamation laws typically cover statements of fact – our opinions are protected by the First Amendment. But, says Hermes, facts can lurk in opinions, and turn them into fodder for a lawsuit.
“Although much of what appears in online reviews constitutes non-actionable opinion, statements of fact normally do not become opinions merely because the author states ‘I believe that…’ or ‘It is my opinion that…’ at the beginning of the sentence,” he explains.
Hermes advises including the facts behind your opinion. “John Doe was a terrible plumber because he forgot to turn of the water before opening the pipes,” he offers as an example. Demonstrating that you have concrete, provable facts to back up your statements may save you from a defamation suit.