Federal Legislation Introduced To Strengthen Consumer Free Speech Rights Online
from the about-time dept
Last week, Tim Cushing wrote about California’s new law that outlaws consumer-silencing non-disparagement clauses. Apparently momentum is on consumers’ side, as Rep. Eric Swalwell, along with Rep. Brad Sherman, introduced similar federal legislation this week to protect all consumers from this shady tactic.
The bill, cited as the “Consumer Review Freedom Act of 2014,” voids any provision of a contract that:
- prohibits or restricts the ability of a person who is a party to the form contract to engage in a covered communication;
- imposes a penalty or fee against a person who is a party to the form contract for engaging in a covered communication; or
- assigns or provides an exclusive license, or requires a person who is a party to the form contract to assign or provide an exclusive license, to any business, other person, or entity any intellectual property rights that such party to the adhesion contract has or may have in a covered communication.
The bill later defines “covered communication” as “a person’s written, verbal, or pictorial review, performance assessment of, or other similar analysis of, the products, services, or conduct of a business which is a party to the form contract.”
While the bill does not specify fines for violations like California’s new law, it is still a step in the right direction (and better than nothing).
In his press release following the introduction, Swalwell said, “No country that values free speech would allow customers to be penalized for writing an honest review. I introduced this legislation to put a stop to this egregious behavior so people can share honest reviews without fear of litigation. I look forward to advancing this in a bipartisan manner, and protecting the right to speak one’s mind.”
Swalwell also cited Palmer v. Kleargear.com in his press release (the case involving a couple from Utah who was fined $3,500 by KlearGear for violation of a non-disparagement clause after they posted a negative review online about their experience with the company).
Palmer is just one example of recent headlines that shed light on the problem of non-disparagement clauses. From a hotel in New York that threatened to charge guests $500 for posting negative reviews online, to a contractor who voided his client’s warranty because of a negative online review, numerous examples over the past few years have shed light on this shameful practice by businesses.
Though this is not an entirely new phenomenon. Consumers have been getting hit with Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) for years, where a plaintiff files a meritless lawsuit against a consumer for posting a negative review online. Yet, now businesses are attempting to avoid having to file a SLAPP by burying non-disparagement clauses in the fine print of consumer contracts.
Both tactics by businesses are aimed at chilling the First Amendment rights of consumers. Here’s hoping Rep. Swalwell’s bill becomes law and that federal anti-SLAPP legislation follows suit.
Evan Mascagni is the Policy Director of the Public Participation Project (www.anti-slapp.org), a nonprofit organization dedicated to enactment of strong federal and state legislative protections against SLAPPs.