Legal Threat Demands We Shut Down Techdirt

from the first-test-of-the-SPEECH-Act? dept

Here at Techdirt, unfortunately, we get an average of about one legal threat per month. The threats are almost always frivolous -- and often made in anger without the individual realizing why the threats are frivolous. While some sites take the position that they will publish any and all legal threats, we have always tried to give the threatening party the benefit of the doubt, and to recognize that they made their demands in a moment of excess anger and misunderstanding. As such, we generally explain our position as to why any legal action would be a mistake -- and in nearly every case, we never hear back from the person who threatened us.

However, we have recently received a legal threat that we feel deserves attention and airing for a variety of reasons.
  1. Unlike most threats, this one came directly from lawyers representing the individual, rather than from the individual directly.
  2. The threats are quite incredible, demanding that we shut down the entire site of Techdirt, due to a comment (or, potentially, comments) that the client did not like.
  3. The lawyer fails to identify, other than a single snippet and a date, what post or specific comments are objectionable and why (beyond a suggestion of anti-semitism, which while despicable, is not illegal). I guess, since they are demanding we shut down the entire site or be sued, such details are not considered pertinent.
  4. As we detail on this site on a somewhat regular basis, sites like ours are protected by Section 230 of the CDA from libel charges against statements made by users of the site. So any legal action against us is entirely pointless.
  5. Most importantly, this threat is coming from the UK, and the lawyers insist that they will take it to court in the UK. This makes it rather timely and newsworthy for an entirely different reason. Just a few weeks ago we wrote about the new SPEECH Act that was passed into law to protect against libel tourism. As the Congressional record shows, the law was specifically designed to protect US businesses from libel judgments that violate Section 230 -- and the bill's backers explicitly call out libel judgments made in the UK. In other words, the SPEECH Act explicitly protects us from exactly the sort of threat that these lawyers and their client are making against us:
    The purpose of this provision is to ensure that libel tourists do not attempt to chill speech by suing a third-party interactive computer service, rather than the actual author of the offending statement.

    In such circumstances, the service provider would likely take down the allegedly offending material rather than face a lawsuit. Providing immunity removes this unhealthy incentive to take down material under improper pressure.
  6. Separate from the Section 230 defenses, we are also protected due to a lack of personal jurisdiction, which, again, is supported by the recently passed SPEECH Act. It is entirely possible that the lawyers were unaware of the SPEECH Act, but it does seem like a law firm making legal threats in a foreign country should be expected to have researched the legal barriers to making such a claim before using billable hours to make threats they cannot back up.
  7. Finally, it's important to note that a part of the SPEECH Act allows sites protected under this law to seek attorneys' fees should they be targeted in such a lawsuit. Rest assured that we would explore the option to the fullest, if need be.
Separately, I will note that on the same day that I received the legal threat letter from this law firm of Addlestone Keane, I also received an email from someone claiming to be both a regular Techdirt reader and a friend of the client, Jeffrey Morris, saying that he was contacting me to ask if I could, out of the kindness of my heart, remove the comments that are bothering Mr. Morris. Of course, the paper threat letter sent by Mr. Morris' lawyers was sent five days prior to this email from Mr. Morris' friend. Our policy at Techdirt is that we do not remove comments on such requests, other than comments that we judge to be spam, so we would not have removed the comments, anyway. However, it is odd that Mr. Morris would first have his lawyers pull out the "nuclear option" and demand that we shut down our entire site, and then days later have a friend reach out to make a personal plea.

As such, given the newsworthy nature of an example of where the brand new law (thankfully) protects us, as well as the fact that we do not feel it is decent or right for anyone to demand we shut down our entire site or be sued halfway around the world, because he does not appreciate a comment someone made about him, we are publishing the letter that was sent to us. Thanks in part to the new law, we have no obligation to respond to Mr. Morris, his friend or the lawyers at Addlestone Keane, who (one would hope) will better advise their clients not to pursue such fruitless legal threats in the future. Should Mr. Morris and his solicitors decide that they wish to proceed with such a pointless and wasteful lawsuit against us, which will only serve to cost Mr. Morris significant legal sums with no hope of recovery, we will continue to report on it, safe in the knowledge that it has no bearing on us. The only potential issue I could foresee would be that any UK judgment against us could prevent me from traveling to the UK in the future, which would be unfortunate, as I have quite enjoyed past visits to the UK. But perhaps such ridiculous outcomes will help the UK realize that it's really about time to update its incredibly outdated libel laws and begin respecting free speech rights.
While I don't think it's all that relevant to this discussion, for those who do want to see it, this is the post that the story is about. Even though the law firm failed to point it out, the friend's email did link to it. You will note that the post is from 2004, though there are more recent comments on it, purporting to be from disgruntled former employees of Mr. Morris, which seem to be the concern. There are also, as noted in the legal threat letter, a series of bizarre, nonsensical comments in the same thread, which mostly make the thread somewhat unreadable. Frankly, I am always somewhat amazed when people get upset about situations like this. It seems quite unlikely that random, semi-coherent, anti-semitic comments, buried in a thread on a random blog post from six years ago are going to have any actual impact on your business. People say mean things, it's true, but when put into context, who is actually likely to believe any such comments? People seem to think that if someone says something bad about you online, others will automatically believe it.

Instead of worrying about how people might view such marginal, buried, angry comments on an ancient blog post, it might make more sense to first consider how people might view an excessive legal threat that has no weight against a site based in another country.

Filed Under: free speech, jeffrey morris, legal threat, section 230, speech act, uk
Companies: addlestone keane

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  1. icon
    romeosidvicious (profile), 26 Aug 2010 @ 2:19pm

    Re: New law but old crime.. its not going to protect you..

    what about "the crime' being committed before this new "yanks are allowed to say what they like" laws that have recently been introduced. Im sure that new law will not be retroactive.. BTW: do you know how stupid that new law sounds to anyone who is not American. What are you saying ? if you are in America you can say what you like about anyone else, or anything else because of your "free speech" thing ? WOW, talk about ego's !!

    Firstly the new law applies to lawsuits and not content so it covers this threat of a lawsuit regardless of the age of the post or comment in question. Secondly you apparently do not understand U.S. law regarding free speech. You can say anything at any time about anything with few restrictions. If the things you are saying could be damaging, and the offended party must be able to prove damages, then you may cross the line into libel or slander depending on the medium however if the statements made are true then you have a defense. If what you say is opinion and not represented as fact you also have a defense against lawsuits. There are other situations but they don't apply here. In fact the two situations mentioned don't apply here because Mike did not say the things that have offended Mr. Morris. The things in question were said by posters on this website and Mike is protected from liability for comments made on the site by U.S. law which is one thing that makes this lawsuit laughable. The new law to which Mike refers only aims to keep U.S. citizens from having their rights violated by foreign laws.
    The US is internationally on the nose anyway, I suppose this could not make things much worse.. Also the US being able to say what they like to other countries or people, is a US LAW. If your web page is available in the UK, you are acting under UK law, so you might only get blocked to the UK. But it would be fun, and interesting to see it tested in court. Under UK law !!
    You are dead wrong on your statement that if your webpage is available in the UK then you are subject to UK law. Jurisdiction depends on where the server is physically located which, in this case, is in the U.S. so British law does not apply to Mike's site. The only enforceable judgement, provided Mike doesn't travel to the UK, is the site being blocked in the UK which I am not sure happens anyway. The UK has absolutely no right to try and apply its laws to citizens of the United States who are operating legally and physically inside of the U.S. and you speak of the arrogance of Americans? For the UK to think they can apply their laws to citizens outside of their country is much more arrogant than US citizens practicing their right to free speech.
    You refused to take down this post, and you wonder why he took it further !!. What is there to wonder about, what other choices did he have.
    He could have gone after the actual culpable parties which are the people that made the posts. Mike is not legally responsible for the posts made by others on Techdirt. You may be used to living without freedom or protection of speech but here in the US we take that sort of thing seriously. Attempts could have been made prior to the threat of a lawsuit which Mike clearly states was the first action. Mr. Morris's attorneys decided that attempting to file suit without any way to enforcement a judgement would be a good first step. There were other options.
    As for racist comments, you should be able to remove offending material, and take a little responsibility for your posts. And you would be surprised at what some people will believe, or mabey not, as you say some 'off the wall' stuff yourself, that is often 'believed' by your followers. Those who do not wish to think and enquire for themselves. And allthough you say you will not remover posts when asked, you will certainly remove posts that you dont like yourself. Double standards ?
    Have you read any of the comments on the years old post to which this threat is related. The "racist" comments are comments accusing Mr. Morris of giving preference to Jewish employees. The only racism in the thread is accusations thereof. And furthermore why should Mike take them down? Isn't it better to address filth like racism, or accusations of racism, in public where refutation can occur or is it preferable to sweep it under the rug? Mike is taking responsibility for his posts he is just not, nor is he required to, take responsibility for other's comments on his posts. And Mike doesn't remove posts he doesn't like he removes spam which is another matter entirely. There are tons of posts which disagree with Mike all over this site and some of them are quite well thought out and well reasoned but they still stand. It's just a guess but I predict your idiotic post will stay just like all the rest all over the site.
    But using the Constitution as your took to be an international bully and mouth, is not a good look for the US. Considering their (your) track record over the past 10 or so years.
    Constitutional freedoms are why the US has a less than stellar international reputation. In fact some of the reasons can be argued to be a violation of the very same. We have had some bad leaders and that's not debatable but whatever the idiots in Washington do or look like no foreign government is allowed to trample on the rights of US citizens and we just passed another law to make sure of it. Sorry if that offends you. Ok I am not sorry but it sounded good at the time.
    So its ok to use the constatution for your own gains, but when it comes to Muslum community centre near the 911 site, you quickly want to forget that prized constatution to get your own way..
    I don't see anyone in the US government threatening to pass laws to prevent the mosque from being built. What you see if public outcry which is well within the rights of the people. You can say what you want but I have the right call you on your bullshit. Just like the folks wanting to build a mosque have a right to build it anywhere they own land, depending on zoning which I think is stupid anyway, I have the right to tell them they are being inconsiderate assholes for building it where they are. Neither of us has violated the rights of the other. They offend me by building where they want to build but I would take up arms if the federal government told them they couldn't but until that happens I'll keep calling them assholes and hoping they build somewhere else. You apparently have no grasp of how freedom actually works.
    US law is not internation law, and the US are not the police governing system for the planet.
    You are right. And British law is not international law and the British are not the governing system for the planet which is why the US passed laws protecting its citizens from being subject to oppressive laws from other countries. The British don't get to come and enforce their laws on Americans. If you think they can and can get away with just look at the history of the United States. They did it once and we are still making sure no-one else can do it again. Of course our own leaders are whittling away our rights but that's another story.
    So why expect the rest of the world to abide by your laws, if you will not abide by their laws.
    We don't expect the rest of the world to abide by our laws. We expect them to respect our laws on our soil which is all this hoopla is about. Some British twat has threatened an American with British law to which he is not subject and now we are laughing at the British twat.
    (they might extradite you for a freebee trip the london!!,, but not to see the Queen..).. :)
    You are wrong about jurisdiction here. Mike is US citizen and the server is in the US which makes him subject only to US law. The US government wouldn't allow British laws to be enforced in the US for something that is perfectly legal in the US and happened in US jurisdiction and to even think for a second they would allow an extradition based on a case like this is lunacy. I know I am not supposed to feed the trolls but I couldn't help it this time...

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