Have a Complaint? Blog about It

The targets of online complaints are increasingly filing defamation suits, First Amendment lawyers told ABCNEWS.com. Those suing are unsettled by the pace at which a few negative remarks can travel across the Web, reaching far more people than traditional word of mouth ever could. "What's changed is that you now have individuals -- ordinary citizens, often without any great resources -- able to disseminate views and opinions just as widely as regular newspapers or broadcast stations can, and it makes everyone equal," said T. Barton Carter, a professor of communication law at Boston University.

Carter says the legal definition of defamation is knowingly making an untrue factual statement that could potentially harm someone's reputation. Because of the reach of the Web, defamatory statements that may once have been harmless lunch table conversation can reach hundreds or thousands of people, or more.

"Whereas it used to be that people would go complain to their friends and neighbors on a one-on-one basis, now they can do that without leaving their homes," Carter said. "Newspapers at least used to have editors and so on and some sort of checks and balances, but now anyone goes online and [their] thoughts are instantly out there."

"There are many good aspects to this, but there are obviously some downsides," Carter said. "Given that our country's fundamental belief is more speech is better, then it's good, as is the fact that [the Internet] empowers a lot more people to express themselves. The trouble is like anything else, that when you give people more power they can use it for good or not so good."

The situations in Florida and Texas are still fairly new for the blogosphere, and people who are attacked online may be responding out of anger that the parents' negative remarks can be found by anyone with an Internet connection, said Carter.

"The Internet does create a different feel to these controversies because of how rapid the communications are," said James Speta, a communications law professor at Northwestern University. "When it's up on the Internet for everyone to see it has such a wider scope that it escalates the controversy very quickly."

Along with a broader forum to air grievances, Speta said, comes an even bigger loss of privacy. Court documents -- like the Texas superintendent's divorce papers -- would have been much harder to obtain before the Internet. Nowadays, if it's public and accessible somewhere on the Internet, it's fair game to be reposted on personal blogs or sent via e-mail.

Whither Free Speech?

"These defamation suits are chilling free expression on the Internet," said Lawrence Walters, a First Amendment attorney based in Florida, who told ABCNEWS.com that in the past two years his practice has seen an increased volume of defamation cases. "Where someone might be able to get away with some criticism on a low-key level, when you post it on the Internet people tend to take action and then these defamation suits are filed. It scares people from expressing themselves in the future."

"The answer for bad speech is more speech, not censorship or defamation suits," said Walters. "The Internet is the great equalizer, and we can all reach the same people. The preferable method of responding to criticism would be to get your side out [on the Internet too]."

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