Legislation that would help protect consumers may pass soon. Corporations these days often like to use lawsuits to diminish the financial assets of people that have opposed them or rightly damaged their reputation in some way, which is a harmful practice that should be stopped for the public interest.
So how exactly is our freedom of expression under attack in the United States? Some unscrupulous businesses are hiding non-disparagement clauses in their contracts in order to prohibit the posting of critical feedback about the company’s goods and services. Other businesses are using strategic lawsuits against public participation, better known as SLAPPs, which primarily aim to silence opinions that those businesses disagree with. For example, Prestigious Pets LLC, a pet-sitting company in Plano, Texas, filed a SLAPP lawsuit last year for $6,766 against a couple simply for posting a negative review on Yelp-that’s right, $6,776 for sharing an honest opinion about the dissatisfactory service they received while out of town. In addition to the monetary fine, the company also wanted the couple to remove the review in the hopes that other potential customers would remain in the dark about their service complaints.
Put simply, consumers don’t currently have protections against businesses that use these types of shady business practices to intimidate their customers. That needs to change.
Fortunately, there are currently two pieces of bi-partisan legislation designed to protect American consumers from the attempts to chill speech described above, namely: the Consumer Review Fairness Act (CRFA) and the Securing Participation, Engagement, and Knowledge Freedom by Reducing Egregious Efforts Act (SPEAK FREE Act). Both bills will protect a consumer’s right to speak out on issues of importance to them through different means and both need bipartisan support if they are to become law.
In the immediate future, the U.S. Senate can provide consumers with initial protections provided in the CRFA by banning non-disparagement clauses from consumer contracts. We are optimistic that the Senate will send the CRFA through the legislative process and to President Obama’s desk after the House of Representatives unanimously supported the legislation on Sept. 12 of this year.
As for the SPEAK FREE Act, we will continue to work on consumers’ behalf to prevent egregious lawsuits like the one in Plano, Texas and countless others; we need a national standard to protect all consumers from this kind of retaliation. Today, 28 states, plus Washington, D.C., have anti-SLAPP statutes on the books in order to protect consumers from these dishonest tactics. These 28 statutes, however, don’t protect the millions of citizens living in states without such a law — states like Wisconsin, New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia, and New Hampshire just to name a few. Now is the time for commonsense, bipartisan bills to protect the thoughts and opinions of the American people.
Americans rely on consumer reviews to make important decisions regarding medical treatment, childcare and travel. In fact, a survey by BrightLocal found that 84 percent of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. However, the value these services provide is in serious jeopardy if Congress does not move forward with passing these critical pieces of legislation.
It is no secret that during the last eight years Congress has been crippled by hyperpartisanship, resulting in Washington gridlock. However, advancing legislation that will protect Americans’ right to freely express themselves, both online and off, is an issue all elected officials should unite around.