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Two Bills That Congress Should Pass to Protect Freedom of Speech on the Internet


What do you do when you’re looking for a new dentist, planning a trip out of state or are in the market for a new TV? Chances are you turn to the Internet to see what others have to say.

People have always shared their experiences, ideas and opinions with others. This trait has resulted in innovation and aided consumers in making informed decisions on how they spend their time and money. And the Internet has amplified this type of sharing. A review of a restaurant, which would have previously been shared with only a few people, is now seen by hundreds of people on sites like Yelp. An opinion piece — on topics ranging from politics to travel — in a national publication is now read thousands of times online.

Unfortunately, not everyone sees the benefits of the growing role online commentary is playing in our society, and they’re instilling stifling tactics — like gag clauses in consumer form contracts and Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) — to combat them.

Additionally, more and more businesses are using gag clauses to attempt to silence negative commentary online. These clauses, often buried deep in consumer form contracts, allow businesses to threaten and even fine customers for sharing their honest, first-hand experiences online.

Along with these gag clauses, other bad actors are using SLAPPs to stifle speech. These lawsuits are used to intimidate writers of honest – but negative – reviews by threatening them with steep legal fees and countless hours spent in court for sharing. While most SLAPPs do not survive legal challenge, the threat of a suit is highly effective at getting critics to take down their posts from social networks, blogs and e-commerce platforms.

Fortunately, two bills have been introduced in Congress that would limit the reach of these stifling tactics, protecting consumers and promoting public participation.

Consumer Review Freedom Act

In September 2015, Senators Thune (R-SD), Schatz (D-HI) and Moran (R-KS) introduced the Consumer Review Freedom Act of 2015 (S. 2044). This bill sets out to nullify legally dubious gag clauses that stifle free speech and reward bad businesses that are willing to bully their clientele with hefty fines and threats of litigation. We expect the House to move on this in the near future.

SPEAK FREE Act

Introduced by Representatives Farenthold (R-TX) and Eshoo (D-CA), the SPEAK FREE Act (HR 2304) — “Securing Participation, Engagement, and Knowledge Freedom by Reducing Egregious Efforts Act of 2015” — will allow federal courts nationwide to determine whether a lawsuit targeting speech is a SLAPP and, if so, to dismiss it early on in the legal process. The bill goes even further to include a fee-shifting provision, which will minimize actual costs to the victims of meritless lawsuits.

While there is a patchwork of states that have anti-SLAPP legislation on their books, we lack a national baseline. Thus, millions of consumers across the country are left without an affordable and robust way to fight abusive litigation brought forth to silence them. The SPEAK FREE Act sets to remedy this removing incentive for these meritless suits in the first place and protecting consumers’ right to free speech.

Yelp strongly supports these two bills, which will curb the rise of SLAPPs and protect consumers from nefarious hidden gag clauses in non-negotiable form contracts. We look forward to continuing our work to ensure Americans across the country are better protected when it comes to exercising their right to free speech, online and off.

Laurent Crenshaw, Director of Public Policy, Yelp

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