Venting Away, and its Perils

Last week's "Treehousegate" blew up and over and (I hope) out, illustrating yet again the informal perils of combining incomplete information and access to the Internet. This morning's Post-Gazette highlights a different and more formal peril: Venting online can get you sued.

After a towing company hauled Justin Kurtz's car from his apartment complex parking lot, despite his permit to park there, Mr. Kurtz, 21, a college student in Kalamazoo, Mich., went to the Internet for revenge.

Outraged at having to pay $118 to get his car back, Mr. Kurtz created a Facebook page called "Kalamazoo Residents against T&J Towing." Within two days, 800 people had joined the group, some posting comments about their own maddening experiences with the company.

T&J filed a defamation suit against Mr. Kurtz, claiming the site was hurting business and seeking $750,000 in damages.

While Congress is thinking about a federal law designed to discourage this sort of intimidation, Congress has been thinking about this for a while. But these suits, while scary for the defendant, are usually designed to intimidate rather than to recover money. As with most bullies, the best defense is a good offense. Unfortunately, the P-G's edited version of the story, which originated with the New York Times, leaves out the punch line. According to the Times:

In Michigan, which does not have an anti-Slapp measure, Mr. Kurtz’s legal battle has made him a local celebrity. His Facebook page has now grown to more than 12,000 members.

“This case raises interesting questions,” said the towing company’s lawyer, Richard Burnham. “What are the rights to free speech? And even if what he said is false, which I am convinced, is his conduct the proximate cause of our loss?”

On April 30, Mr. Kurtz and his lawyers asked a judge to dismiss the suit by T&J, which has received a failing grade from the local Better Business Bureau for complaints over towing legally parked cars. Mr. Kurtz is also countersuing, claiming that T&J is abusing the legal process.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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