SPEAK FREE Act Introduced To Protect Online Criticism

The Securing Participation, Engagement and Knowledge Freedom by Reducing Egregious Efforts (SPEAK FREE) Act of 2015 has been introduced by Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) to help protect online speech.

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—against lawsuits meant to quell that speech, or what the acronym-filled bill calls a SLAPP suit (strategic lawsuit against public participation).

That would include product and service criticisms online.

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

There would be no fast-track motion for enforcement actions brought by federal, state or local governments, and there are various exemptions, limitation and exceptions for commercial and academic speech, among others.

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. ITIF VP Daniel Castro called 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 the suits are designed to "intimidate critics and prevent bad publicity," using an example of a patient's online critique of a bad dentist, and says 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 says 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."

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 out of companies for whom 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.

John Eggerton

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.