Case Dismissed: Judge Throws Out Shiva Ayyadurai's Defamation Lawsuit Against Techdirt

from the the-first-amendment-means-something dept

As you likely know, for most of the past nine months, we've been dealing with a defamation lawsuit from Shiva Ayyadurai, who claims to have invented email. This is a claim that we have disputed at great length and in great detail, showing how email existed long before Ayyadurai wrote his program. We pointed to the well documented public history of email, and how basically all of the components that Ayyadurai now claims credit for preceded his own work. We discussed how his arguments were, at best, misleading, such as arguing that the copyright on his program proved that he was the "inventor of email" -- since patents and copyrights are very different, and just because Microsoft has a copyright on "Windows" it does not mean it "invented" the concept of a windowed graphical user interface (because it did not). As I have said, a case like this is extremely draining -- especially on an emotional level -- and can create massive chilling effects on free speech.

A few hours ago, the judge ruled and we prevailed. The case has been dismissed and the judge rejected Ayyadurai's request to file an amended complaint. We are certainly pleased with the decision and his analysis, which notes over and over again that everything that we stated was clearly protected speech, and the defamation (and other claims) had no merit. This is, clearly, a big win for the First Amendment and free speech -- especially the right to call out and criticize a public figure such as Shiva Ayyadurai, who is now running for the US Senate in Massachusetts. We're further happy to see the judge affirm that CDA Section 230 protects us from being sued over comments made on the blog, which cannot be attributed to us under the law. We talk a lot about the importance of CDA 230, in part because it protects sites like our own from these kinds of lawsuits. This is just one more reason we're so concerned about the latest attempt in Congress to undermine CDA 230. While those supporting the bill may claim that it only targets sites like Backpage, such changes to CDA 230 could have a much bigger impact on smaller sites like our own.

We are disappointed, however, that the judge denied our separate motion to strike under California's anti-SLAPP law. For years, we've discussed the importance of strong anti-SLAPP laws that protect individuals and sites from going through costly legal battles. Good anti-SLAPP laws do two things: they stop lawsuits early and they make those who bring SLAPP suits -- that is, lawsuits clearly designed to silence protected speech -- pay the legal fees. The question in this case was whether or not California's anti-SLAPP law should apply to a case brought in Massachusetts. While other courts have said that the state of the speaker should determine which anti-SLAPP laws are applied (even in other states' courts), it was an issue that had not yet been ruled upon in the First Circuit where this case was heard. While we're happy with the overall dismissal and the strong language used to support our free speech rights, we're nevertheless disappointed that the judge chose not to apply California's anti-SLAPP law here.

However, that just reinforces the argument we've been making for years: we need stronger anti-SLAPP laws in many states (including Massachusetts) and, even more importantly, we need a strong federal anti-SLAPP law to protect against frivolous lawsuits designed to silence protected speech. The results of this case have only strengthened our resolve to do everything possible to continue to fight hard for protecting freedom of expression and to push for stronger anti-SLAPP laws that make free speech possible, and not burdensome and expensive.

You have not heard the last from us on the issue of the First Amendment, free speech and anti-SLAPP laws -- or how some try to use the court system to silence and bully critics. Step one of this is our new Free Speech edition, which we announced just a few weeks ago, where we are focusing more of our reporting efforts on issues related to free speech and anti-SLAPP. We intend to do a lot more as well. For years, we've talked about these issues from the position of an observer, and now we can talk about them from the perspective of someone who has gone through this process as well.

Of course, if you have to face something like this, it helps to have great lawyers--and we're immensely grateful for the incredible hard-work of Rob Bertsche, Jeff Pyle and Thomas Sutcliffe along with the rest of the team at their firm, Prince Lobel Tye LLP.

Finally, I can't even begin to thank everyone who has supported us over the past nine months -- whether by kind words (you don't know how much that helped!) or through our survival fund at ISupportJournalism.com or by becoming a Techdirt Insider. We just passed Techdirt's 20th anniversary and while it's one thing to think that people like and support you, it's another thing altogether to see how people come out to support you when it matters most. And we were overwhelmed by the support we received over the past nine months, and the kind words and help that many, many people offered. It was beyond heartening, and, once again, it reinforces our resolve to continue to speak up for free speech and to do what we can to protect others' ability to speak out as well.


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  1. identicon
    Dennis Laurion, 21 Feb 2018 @ 11:12pm

    SLAPP policy

    Heartfelt congratulations.

    I’ve lived the consumer side of this SLAPP topic.

    Minnesota First Amendment lawyer Marshall Tanick was earlier quoted in a Star Tribune newspaper article August 27, 2001. It said in part: “If a company sues, alleging simple business disparagement or perhaps defamation, its goal isn’t necessarily to win,” said Marshall Tanick, a First Amendment expert . . . “The strategy is to force the other person to incur huge legal expenses that will deter them and others from making such statements,” he said . . . “yet very few (cases) go all the way to trial and verdict,” Tanick said.

    I suspect that if Minnesota had a stronger SLAPP statute, more readily known by lawyers in 2010, I might not have been sued from 2010 through 2013 for criticizing the bedside manner of a Duluth doctor.

    Unlike other SLAPP statutes that protect any public interest speech, Minnesota's only protect(ed) speech aimed at government processes. I think opposing counsel was mindful of that when his suit on behalf of his plaintiff addressed only my Internet comments and not my letters to government bodies.

    A good SLAPP statute does not prevent an insulted doctor or plumber from getting his jury trial, but it does make his suit get scrutinized for validity more quickly - particularly in Minnesota, which maintains the quaint custom of hip pocket law suits. During four years of depositions, discovery, hearings, and motions, I never once spoke to a judge.

    My four years of association with the defamation process was a distressing war of financial attrition for my family. The plaintiff’s first contact with me was a letter that said in part that he had the means and motivation to pursue me. The suit cost me the equivalent of two year’s net income – the same as 48 of my car payments plus 48 of my house payments. My family members had to dip into retirement funds to help me.

    We were overwhelmed by my being sued after posting a consumer opinion, and we were shocked by the rapidity with which it happened. My mother and wife preferred no discussion, because they didn’t want to think about it. Conversation with my father only reminded him of his anger over this situation. My siblings and children didn’t often bring it up, because they didn’t know how to say anything helpful. I was demoralized by four calendar years of being called “Defendant Laurion” in public documents.

    While being sued for defamation I was called a passive aggressive, an oddball, a liar, a coward, a bully, a malicious person, a Boy Scout who did no good deed, and a zealot family member. I was said to have run a cottage industry vendetta, writing 19 letters, and posting 108 adverse Internet postings in person or through proxies.

    After receipt of a threat letter from opposing counsel on behalf of his client, I deleted my rate-your-doctor site postings and sent confirmation emails to opposing counsel. Not only was I sued, but I was denigrated as a liar in a demand letter to my insurance provider of 25 years, in spite of the fact that I didn't carry liability insurance.

    Since May of 2010, postings on the Internet by others included newspaper accounts of the lawsuit; readers’ remarks about the newspaper accounts; and blog opinion pieces written by doctors, lawyers, public relations professionals, patient advocates, and information technology experts. Dozens of websites by doctors, lawyers, patient advocates, medical students, law schools, consumer advocates, and free speech monitors posted opinions that a doctor or plumber shouldn’t sue the family of a customer for a bad rating. These authors never said they saw my deleted ratings – only the news coverage.

    Medical peer newsletters or magazines that interviewed the plaintiff did not approach me. Websites maintained by doctors for doctors or lawyers for lawyers often caused an inference that I was a zealot family member or somebody who had asked about my dad’s chances and then shot the messenger. Generally, however, those websites echoed other websites in advising public relations responses other than a lawsuit – for fear of creating the “Streisand Effect.” As a retired layman, I brought far less resources to the battle of financial attrition.

    I’ve learned that laws about slander and libel do not conform to one’s expectations. I’ve read that online complaints are safe “if you stick to the facts.” That’s exactly the wrong advice. I did not want to merely post my conclusions. I wanted to stick to my recollection of what I’d heard. I don’t like to read generalities like "I am upset," "I think the doctor did not treat my father well," "I think he was insensitive," "he did not spend enough time in my opinion." However, such generalities are excused as opinion, hyperbole, or angry utterances. I heard opposing counsel tell the Minnesota Supreme Court that if I had stuck to such generalities, they'd not have been considered defamatory. If one purports to say what happened, factual recitations can be litigated. The plaintiff must prove the facts are willfully misstated, but the defendant can go broke while waiting through the effort - they can "incur huge legal expenses that will deter them and others from making such statements.”

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