Legal Threats By Charles Harder & Shiva Ayyadurai Targeting More Speech
from the chilling-effects dept
Let's say right upfront: if you are unaware, Shiva Ayyadurai is currently suing Techdirt for our posts concerning Ayyaduria's claims to have invented email. Ayyadurai's lawyer in this matter is Charles Harder, the lawyer who filed multiple lawsuits against Gawker, and is credited by many with forcing that company into bankruptcy and fire sale.
Now Harder, on behalf of Ayyadurai, has sent a demand letter to try to have social media comments posted in response to the lawsuit against us taken down. We are writing about this -- despite the lawsuit against us -- because we believe it is important and we do not intend to have our own speech chilled. This is also why we believe it is so important to have a federal anti-SLAPP law in place, because the chance to chill speech with threats or actual litigation is not a hypothetical problem. It is very, very real.
Harder's letter is to Diaspora, and it demands that certain posts by Roy Schestowitz be removed (which appears to have happened). Schestowitz is the guy behind the Techrights blog, which frequently covers issues related to things like free v. proprietary software and software patents. Harder's letter to Diaspora claims that Schestowitz's posts are defamatory, violate Diaspora's terms of service, and "constitute harassment and intentional infliction of emotional distress."
Harder's letter makes the questionable claim that Diaspora itself is liable for Schestowitz's statements. There is tremendous caselaw on Section 230 of the CDA holding that a website cannot be held liable for speech made by users, so it's odd that Harder would argue otherwise, stating that the posts "qualify under the law to establish liability against you."
One of the key reasons Section 230 of the CDA exists is to protect the freedom of expression of users, so that websites aren't pressured via legal threats to take down speech over fear of liability. That's why it grants full immunity. It is surprising that an attorney as established as Harder would overlook this. Elsewhere in the letter, he references Massachusetts law as applying, so it's not as though he's suggesting that some other jurisdiction outside the US applies. So, since Section 230 clearly applies, why would Charles Harder tell Diaspora that it is liable for these statements?
Separately, Harder's letter concludes with the following statement:
This letter and its contents are confidential, protected by copyright law, and not authorized for publication or dissemination.
We have seen similar statements on legal letters in the past and they have generally been considered meaningless, at best. On the question of confidentiality/authorization for publication, that's not how it works. The recipient of such a letter has no obligation to not disseminate it or to ask for authorization without any prior agreement along those lines. You can't magically declare something confidential and ban anyone from sharing it. Furthermore, this is especially true when dealing with legal threat letters. While many lawyers put such language into these letters to try to scare recipients (and avoid a Streisand Effect over the attempt to silence speech), they serve no purpose other than intimidation.
Separately, claims of copyright in takedown or cease & desist letters, while they do show up occasionally, are also generally considered to be overstatements of the law. First off, there are questions raised about whether or not general cease & desist threat letters have enough creativity to get any kind of copyright, but, more importantly, even if there were copyright on such a letter it would be a clear and obvious fair use case to be able to share them and distribute them publicly, as part of an effort to discuss how one has been threatened with questionable legal arguments.
Either way, we believe that this fits a pattern of using legal threats and litigation to silence criticism of public figures. In an era when speaking truth to power is so important, we believe such actions need to be given attention, and need to be called out. We also think they demonstrate why we need much stronger anti-SLAPP laws, at both the state and federal level to protect people's right to speak out about public issues. If you agree, please call your elected representatives and ask them to support strong anti-SLAPP protections, like those found in the SPEAK FREE Act of 2015.