Have a Complaint? Blog about It

More people using the Internet to vent means more defamation suits.

Nov. 20, 2007 — -- The Web is fast becoming a favorite forum for consumers or parents to lodge complaints. Whether it's a gripe against child's school administrator, a faulty product or even a car manufacturer, the disgruntled have found a wide range of creative ways to air grievances online, raising new questions about the limits of free speech in the Internet age.

Late last month an Orlando, Fla., mother blogged about her 7-year-old daughter's private school, which she claimed discriminated against "mixed-raced" students and generally made her child unhappy.

When the New School of Orlando got wind of the Sonjia McSween's blog, it sued her for defamation for claiming that the school had a "kickback" scheme arranged with a psychologist.

McSween could not be reached for comment.

"This has nothing to do with someone not liking a school or not liking their treatment," said David Simmons, the lawyer representing the prep school, who brushed aside the notion that the school was just unhappy about the negative attention. "It has everything to do with the allegations that there was a kickback scheme that she has no basis for. We are suing her to make her stop."

McSween isn't the only parent turning to the blogosphere to air her grievances.

A group of parents in Argyle, Texas, are so angry with the Argule school district's superintendent, Jason Ceyanes, that that they posted the details of his divorce proceedings on the Web.

Ceyanes wants to put the kibosh on students' dirty dancing and revealing clothing at school dances, according to The Wall Street Journal, arguing that they create an unsafe environment.

While Ceyanes has yet to take legal action against the disgruntled parents, other members of the community who support the superintendent have created their own blogs to counter those of the dissident parents.

There are also examples of suits filed by product manufacturers against customers who have created Web sites devoted solely to their complaints about specific products. In fact, another Web site "webgripesites.com," offers a comprehensive list of these consumer-created sites along with a brief explanation of the complaints.

Alan and Linda Townsend, for example, developed a Web site to complain about the spray-on siding they used on their home. The product's manufacturer didn't respond well to the public scruntiny, suing the couple for defamation and trademark infringment, as well as accusing them of intentionally misleading other consumers, according to the Associated Press.

Eric Wiedemer launched a site to complain about his disfunctional Suzuki car, which he told The Cincinnati Inquirer had a faulty engine from day one. The car manufacturer later threatened legal action against the customer, accusing him of defaming their brand on his site "SuzukiVeronaSucks.com."

The World Wide Whine

As Web sites and blogs replace friends and hairdressers as sounding boards, many people are unaware that airing their grievances on the Web can leave them open to lawsuits, justified and not.

"People are really taking advantage of [the Web] and are speaking their minds online. But there are things that you can't say online without legal ramifications … You can't defame people and you can't disclose private facts," said Rebecca Jesche, spokesperson for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties organization.

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]."

And as for whether free speech law will change to reflect the digital age, the lawyers ABCNEWS.com spoke to agreed that this is unlikely to happen, and instead users would likely be the ones to change their own behavior rather than file expensive lawsuits.

"There will be changing expectations as people come to understand what disclosures the Internet makes possible," said Northwestern's Speta. "On one end we'll see much more use of blogs to make public our complications, but I also think those who are exposed to blogs will treat them with the seriousness -- or the lack of seriousness -- that they're really warranting."

"I do think it's still early [in the digital age], and that these things will work out," he said. "But there will be casualties along the way, of course."