from the smart-move dept
Another day, another case of a business attempting to stifle online criticism via threat of lawsuit, amirite? We've seen it again and again. Companies ignorant of the terrifying Streisand Effect go after critics and, normally, the only warm and fuzzy feeling we can take away from it is knowing that these abusers are more hated as a result of their threats than they were before. But not today, friends. Today's story ends hilariously well.
It all starts with an Illinois bus company called Suburban Express that operates lines from Chicago to several colleges in and out of the state. Its online reputation is, to say the least, poor.
For example, the company's ticket policy includes a "ticket fraud" clause that hits riders who hand the wrong ticket to a driver with a $100 fine, charged to the credit card used to purchase their ticket. "In the event that ticket is used to obtain transportation on another day or at another time," the company's policy statement reads, "or to or from a Chicago area stop other than printed on your ticket, you will be charged full fare for the trip you actually rode PLUS $100 penalty. You will also be permanently banned." The company also has a history of suing passengers for violating its terms and conditions—it has filed 125 tort and contract damage lawsuits against passengers this year alone, according to a report from a student newspaper.So, we're dealing with a company that enjoys suing its own customers after slapping their wallets around with insane fines that seem designed less to encourage good behavior than to simply extract more money out of people. Well, if Suburban Express is happy to sue its own customers, you can guess just how aggressive they like to behave with the internet upon which some of these customers express their displeasure. Unfortunately, when that displeasure is aimed at one of the company's drivers who told an exchange student, "If you don't understand English, you don't belong at the University of Illinois or any 'American' University," then you're going to raise the ire of roughly everyone. It was a witness to that event, Jeremy Leval, who took to Facebook to describe the incident. Guess what his prize for outing racism was...
Four days later, Leval told the Daily Illini, University of Illinois' student newspaper, about the incident. He received an e-mail from the company that said he was being fined $500 for "liquidated damages" and was permanently banned. In a statement on the company's website, company owner [Dennis] Toeppen threatened to sue Leval, saying, "The attorneys for Suburban Express are reviewing this incident with a view towards filing the appropriate legal action against this meddlesome MBA student."Toeppen wasn't done there, either. He took to Reddit to push back on on Leval's story, indicating that some undescribed person had already apologized for the incident (because that makes it all better?). Unfortunately for him, his company is still being lambasted for its behavior on subreddits for the University of Illinois, where some are also claiming that Suburban Express employees are posting messages accusing reddit users of being virgins and chronic masturbators. Should you think that the idea of a business owner doing all this is a bit far-fetched, it's instructive to note the kind of slimeball we're talking about.
Toeppen is no stranger to legal action over Internet controversy. In the late 1990s, he was a self-confessed cybersquatter, registering over 200 domain names and asking for payment by trademark holders in exchange for them—including Panavision.com, for which he demanded $13,000. That led to the 1998 case Panavision International L.P. v. Toeppen (which Toeppen lost) and in part to the AntiCybersquatting Consumer Protection Act of 1999.
"It was clear to me at the time that domain names were valuable, undeveloped virtual real estate," he wrote on his personal home page. "There was absolutely no statutory or case law regarding trademarks in the context of Internet domain names at the time. It seemed to be an excellent opportunity to do the virtual equivalent of buying up property around a factory—eventually the factory owner would realize that he needed the scarce resource which I possessed."Now, after a bunch of the insulting messages on reddit were deleted by the moderator, Murph Finnicum, Toeppen's attorney threatened to sue him for libel and over deleting the messages purportedly left by Suburban Express employees. James Long, the attorney, demanded "corrective action" immediately due to the damage the company had suffered by having their own posts deleted, and indicated that legal action against him had been authorized by the company.
But, wait, I can already hear you saying: but you promised us this story had a happy ending! Well, it does, courtesy of Ken "Popehat" White.
The legal threat against Finnicum quickly drew promises of support from others on reddit—including Ken White, the lawyer behind the legal blog Popehat. White sent an e-mail to Long, which he also posted to reddit: "I do not represent any party (though I have offered to connect the recipient of your threat with pro bono counsel). However, I am considering writing a post about the matter."
"Would you be willing to answer some questions about your threat?" White continued. "I'm particularly interested in discussing the factual basis for your assertions, how you reconcile your position with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and your evaluation of risks in light of the Streisand Effect."The result? A letter from attorney James Long to Finnicum:
"I will confess that I have very limited understanding of Reddit," he wrote, "and your response regarding the thread being moderated by several different individuals was instructive and was confirmed by individuals with much more knowledge of Reddit than I possess. At this time Suburban Express is of the opinion that it is best for the company and all individuals involved with this issue for Suburban Express to move forward with its mission to provide safe, courteous and efficient service to its current and future customers."They ran away as fast as they could. I'm not sure if they are going to continue legal action against Laval, but if they actually read into the Streisand Effect when Ken White mentioned it, then they already know that they really, really shouldn't.