The Hill: There is still time for President Obama, Congress to protect consumers
BY BRAD YOUNG AND LAURENT CRENSHAW – 11/16/16 11:25 AM EST
Americans recently made their voices heard by electing a new president and Congress. Whether your candidate was elected or not, open, free and transparent elections are what make our democratic system function so smoothly. Another core principle of our democracy is the freedom to express an opinion without the threat of retaliation. Congress has an opportunity to fortify that right in the coming weeks through two pending pieces of “free expression” legislation.
Before President-elect Trump and Congress take office in a few, short months, our current elected officials will be focused on funding our federal government through a continuing resolution, yet they also have the ability to address the problem of “speech bullying” once and for all. Passing legislation that directly confronts the systemic abuses of our legal system used to silence the voices of American consumers should not wait until a new Congress is sworn in next year.
So how exactly is our freedom of expression under attack in the United States? Some unscrupulous businesses are hiding non-disparagement clauses in their contracts in order to prohibit the posting of critical feedback about the company’s goods and services. Other businesses are using strategic lawsuits against public participation, better known as SLAPPs, which primarily aim to silence opinions that those businesses disagree with. For example, Prestigious Pets LLC, a pet-sitting company in Plano, Texas, filed a SLAPP lawsuit last year for $6,766 against a couple simply for posting a negative review on Yelp—that’s right, $6,776 for sharing an honest opinion about the dissatisfactory service they received while out of town. In addition to the monetary fine, the company also wanted the couple to remove the review in the hopes that other potential customers would remain in the dark about their service complaints.
Put simply, consumers don’t currently have protections against businesses that use these types of shady business practices to intimidate their customers. That needs to change.
Fortunately, there are currently two pieces of bi-partisan legislation designed to protect American consumers from the attempts to chill speech described above, namely: the Consumer Review Fairness Act (CRFA) and the Securing Participation, Engagement, and Knowledge Freedom by Reducing Egregious Efforts Act (SPEAK FREE Act). Both bills will protect a consumer’s right to speak out on issues of importance to them – through different means – and both need bipartisan support if they are to become law.