Abusive Lawsuits Can Silence Your Community (Even if You’ve Done Nothing Wrong)

Eric GoldmanAbusive lawsuits and legal maneuvers threaten our communities and our members by silencing them under the weight of excessive litigation and costly attorney’s fees.

If a member of your community criticizes a company, and that company doesn’t like it, they can sue you or your member. Even if you are completely in the right, your finances can be drained as you work to defend yourself. For this reason, many community professionals simply opt to fold to demands and remove the content, even if it would otherwise be acceptable.

Our guest is Eric Goldman, a professor of law at the Santa Clara University School of Law. His focus is internet law and he is part of a group working to pass federal legislation that will make it harder for these speech-chilling lawsuits to be successful. Plus:

  • How companies are contractually supressing consumer reviews
  • The most crucial piece of legislation for U.S.-based community professionals
  • Understanding the difference between your terms of service and your community guidelines

Our Podcast is Made Possible By…

If you enjoy our show, please know that it’s only possible with the generous support of our sponsor: Higher Logic.

Higher LogicBig Quotes

“Contract clauses [that prohibit consumer reviews] are an attack on the entire community system.” -@ericgoldman

“Anti-SLAPP laws do two really beneficial things. First, they create a fast lane for abusive lawsuits. They say, ‘We’re going to take a certain subset of lawsuits and move them through the courts as quickly as possible because we want them out of the courts, because they are abusive.’ [Secondly,] they move the attorney’s fees from the defendant to the plaintiff. Basically, the plaintiff has to write a check to the defendant for bringing the lawsuit. The combination of the fast lane, plus the attorney’s fees, means that UGC websites can feel confident that they’ll get the benefits of Section 230 or the First Amendment, without having to spend lots of money in order to defend their substantive rights.” -@ericgoldman

“We have these smaller, maybe very entrepreneurial but still relatively low-revenue communities, that are playing dominant roles in niches. Anti-SLAPP laws are so important to those. It benefits both the site operators and the individuals who are having a discourse there. Both sides of that equation get the benefit of knowing that if an abusive lawsuit comes, designed to stop a conversation that needs to be taking place, we know how to kick it out early, and we know how to make the plaintiff pay for the fees.” -@ericgoldman

“The number one most important law for the internet and for all community sites is 47 U.S.C. § 230, summarized as Section 230. It was passed about 20 years ago and it says, summarized pithily but accurately, ‘Websites aren’t liable for third-party content.’ If your users are saying things they shouldn’t, in general, the rule is, and it’s not in doubt, community websites aren’t responsible for that content.” -@ericgoldman

“Let’s assume, for a moment, that everyone in the community agrees that doing a post in all caps is like shouting. You don’t need to put that into the user agreement. ‘We will terminate your account, and we will sue you for damages if you type in all caps.’ It’s a norm where you want to say, ‘Hey, if you’re using all caps, you should know that you’re shouting.’ In my mind, there’s a role for communities to help their users understand all caps as shouting without treating it like a breach of contract that’s a federal case.” -@ericgoldman

About Eric Goldman

Eric Goldman is a professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law. Before he became a full-time academic, he practiced internet law for 8 years in the Silicon Valley. His research and teaching focuses on internet law, intellectual property and advertising law, and he blogs on those topics at the Technology & Marketing Law Blog.

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