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House Introduces Speak Free Act

In a move to further protect online speech, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) has introduced the Securing Participation, Engagement and Knowledge Freedom by Reducing Egregious Efforts [Speak Free] Act of 2015.

The bill is intended to help protect speech, online or otherwise, about an "official proceeding" or "matter of public concern" -- the latter category is obviously open to interpretation -- by barring lawsuits meant to quell that speech, or what the acronym-filled bill calls a SLAPP suit (strategic lawsuit against public participation);. That would include lawsuits brought in response to consumers' online criticisms of products and services.

The bill would create a special motion to dismiss such suits if the target could make a prima facie case showing that the speech at issue was about a public concern or official matter; the motion could be rebutted by the party suing if the plaintiff could show likelihood of success on the merits.

No fast-track motions for enforcement actions brought by federal, state or local governments would be allowed, and the bill has various other exemptions, limitations and exceptions for commercial and academic speech, among others.

Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, which identifies Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) as bill co-sponsors, hailed the bill, calling it an "important piece of legislation which will protect consumers from frivolous lawsuits intended to silence legit online speech, such as complaints about products or services."

Castro said such suits are designed to "intimidate critics and prevent bad publicity," citing an example of a patient's online critique of a bad dentist, and added that "faced with the time and attorney’s fees involved in defending against such a lawsuit, the easier path for a defendant often is to retract an unflattering statement about a merchant or service provider, even if the statement is true."

He said the current "patchwork of state laws" is not sufficiently protecting online speech. "[T]he Speak Free Act is a necessary policy reform which will create a baseline level of protection for citizens’ rights of petition and free expression," he said.

The issue of frivolous suits, and the lack of consistent state laws to combat them, has gotten a lot attention on the Hill of late in another context, the so-called patent trolls who file suits to extort money from companies for which the cost of litigation would be more than the asking price. Given the dentist analogy, the Speak Free Act could be said to target 'patient' trolls.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.