One of the coolest things that has ever happened to me was when I was invited to be part of the Yelp Elite Squad, an invitation-only group of restaurant reviewers on the restaurant-review site Yelp. To date, I have written reviews of about 100 restaurants (nothing compared to some of my peers). I've doled out high praise to establishments worthy of the praise, in addition to stinging critiques of subpar gastronomical experiences. My experiences, the feelings manifested by visiting the restaurants, belong to me; I am free to document them; I am free to exercise my First Amendment rights. But what if one or more of these restaurants attempted to use the legal system to silence me -- to squelch my right to speak my mind? Unfortunately, some businesses are starting to walk this path. I recently came across a great article in the NY Times about SLAPP suits, tactical lawsuits designed to silence critics through intimidation or insurmountable legal fees.
Tactical lawsuits are nothing new -- businesses and individuals have filed suits against each other without any intention of winning since dinosaurs roamed the Earth (see Stegosaurus v. Australopithecus); likewise, SLAPP suits predate the Internet. The confluence of factors at the root of this particular problem, however, stems from the melding of the egalitarian ethos of the Internet (that anyone has the ability to comment on anything) and the permanence of this information (while spoken comments are but locally-concentrated ephemera). As such, we can understand why some businesses, especially small businesses, might want to quash someone's ability to permanently etch damaging information into the annals of the Internet.
Of course, these suits are gross misuses of the legal system. They're just one of the many ways that well-intentioned legal devices (in this case defamation torts) are being misapplied in order to stop people from speaking their minds. The article mentions another such instance where doctors ask their patients to sign release forms when they become patients at a practice; these forms prevent patients from reviewing their doctors online by having the patient sign over copyright for their opinions about the doctors. That's right: they use the DMCA, designed to protect artists' royalties from copyright infringement (at least ostensibly) to silence their patients.
Free speech is the greatest of our rights, and we're living in an era when it's at its strongest, yet under perpetual attack. Luckily, some states are putting laws in place to prevent SLAPP suits. We can only hope they they move quickly and that all states follow suit (no pun intended).