Lawmakers Propose Bill To Prevent Businesses From Suing You For Complaining About Them

Most of the time, consumer interactions with businesses go just fine. We give a company our money, they provide us with goods or services, and everyone is happy. But sometimes, things go awry. The customer isn’t happy, the business doesn’t make it right, and we complain: not just to the business, but to Facebook, Twitter, or Yelp. And that, too often, is when the story starts to get even uglier.

It happens all the time: a customer complains online, and the business responds with a lawyer. Instead of a change in policy, or an offer to make amends, the consumer ends up on the receiving end of a legal threat basically saying, “if you don’t stop saying mean things about us forever, we will sue you.”

These lawsuits have an acronym: SLAPP, for strategic lawsuit against public participation. Most people have neither the time nor money to spend fighting off a lawsuit from a lawyered-up business, so they respond to legal threats by backing down and removing their posts from the internet. That makes SLAPP suits a cheap and easy way for businesses to shut down dissent and negative criticism: more often than not, they don’t even have to spend real resources following through and going to court.

In short, SLAPP suits suck. They prevent people from fairly (or unfairly) speaking their mind, and use intimidation as a means of silencing. The legal battles, when they do come, can be intense and long-lasting — even when filed in one of the states that has an anti-SLAPP statute on the books. And so members of Congress want to act to make SLAPP suits against the law nationwide.

That’s what a bill just introduced in the House would do. The proposed legislation (PDF), called the SPEAK FREE Act of 2015, is modeled on existing laws in California and Texas. Basically, it gives anyone being targeted with such a suit the ability to call it what it is and ask to have it dismissed in a faster, less cumbersome way than the legal system would ordinarily allow. Since consumers would be able easily to get out of being sued for having opinions, businesses would be less likely to threaten to sue customers for sharing those opinions.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Yelp, which as one of the biggest and most popular sites for consumers to vent about businesses is at the center of so many of these lawsuits, is thoroughly in favor of the SPEAK FREE Act as well as a related newly-proposed bill that would ban anti-disparagement clauses.

“Whether people are expressing their opinions in the form of a consumer review, an editorial in a newspaper, or commentary on a blog, it’s important that they not be bullied into retracting their criticism,” Yelp representatives wrote in an official blog post. “Having both of these laws in place at the federal level will ensure that Yelpers, and all Americans who care about their freedom of speech, are protected from wealthy bullies and powerful special interest groups.”

Anti-SLAPP laws are one of the many never-blooming flowers in the Congressional garden of perennial bills. We covered a similar proposed law back in 2010. So how likely are these current bills likely actually to pass and to benefit consumers?

They stand a better-than-average chance, according to, but still not a great one. The bill against SLAPP suits has an 18% chance of getting through committee and a 3% chance of becoming law; the bill prohibiting anti-defamation clauses stands a 5% chance of becoming law.

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