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
    minijedimaster (profile), 26 Aug 2010 @ 2:30pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Um...

    You're just lucky Chuck Norris was on vacation that week.

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