Moving On

So the end of the semester is here, and it is time for the final blog for MIS 411. Here are a few thoughts about this project, what I think the future of this topic is, and what I learned.


I started out with the topic of user reviews on websites because I found an article about fans of Michael Jackson attempting to manipulate sales of a book on The fans were unhappy with some of the content of the book, so they flooded the book’s page on Amazon with thousands of 1-star reviews, negative comments, and even quality complaints to Amazon. At one point Amazon actually removed the book in response to a quality complaint (they later put it back on the website).

This manipulation of the system was so blatant, and yet Amazon continued to allow it. So that prompted me to begin thinking about the legitimacy of online user reviews, and whether or not they have much of a future.

After the initial posts on this topic, I discovered an issue called Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). The first article I read pertained to a lady who wrote a negative review of a contractor on Yelp, and the contractor responded with a lawsuit. As I researched this topic, I discovered there is a debate going on about these SLAPP lawsuits, as well as efforts by some states to prevent them.

The issue of SLAPP also opens up the wider issue of free speech and freedom of the press.  Several of my posts examined a publication that was targeted by a public official in a potential SLAPP case. Another post discussed whether the press should be forced to reveal sources, as well as the broader issue of whether the press should be immune from prosecution.

Some of my thoughts processes in these later posts revolved around the original intent of the First Amendment, and whether if, in this era of political correctness, society is beginning to limit the exercise of free speech and a free press, if not through the legal system, then through public pressure via social media. Some of these thoughts did not develop in the blog , mostly because they spilled over into other current event topics that I wished to avoid for purposes of this blog.

My final post went back to the issue of SLAPP, but the story I discussed was a case of anti-SLAPP laws being invoked to prevent a libel case from moving forward. The plaintiff argued that the burden placed on him by the anti-SLAPP statute was too great for him to continue his case. Whether the plaintiff’s libel claim was legitimate or not, this is certainly a case of irony, where an anti-SLAPP law was used almost in the same way a SLAPP law is used, by placing a huge financial burden on one party in an attempt to silence them.


Researching this topic of online user reviews is eye-opening. The fact that some consumers intentionally try to manipulate the system really weakens it. Even though these reviews are still a good way to gauge the quality of a product or service before buying, the more people abuse the system, the less reliable it will become. Yelp, Amazon, and other sites that rely heavily on these reviews need to develop a way to better filter out the garbage while not censoring legitimate critics.

A big concern for the future of user reviews is also the SLAPP issue. Even with anti-SLAPP laws, the prospect of having to go to court at all just because I wrote a negative review is enough to force me to hesitate before writing one. I’d rather just let people find out about a bad product or service on their own. So it will be interesting to see if the laws can protect people from retaliation if they post negative comments, and also if they can do so in such a way that keeps people from abusing the laws themselves.


Even though the topic of user reviews is somewhat narrow and benign, I really enjoyed the process of blogging and writing down my thoughts on the different topics I covered. Blogging is something I have always wanted to do, and I am glad I was in a situation where I had the motivation to do it.

One lesson I learned was the importance of thinking through a topic before writing about it. I struggle with staying on topic at times, and writing this blog helped me focus on a single issue and make sure what I was writing (at least for that post) was relevant to the topic.

Another lesson I learned was the importance of interest in the topic I am writing about. It is so much easier to write about something I am interested in than it is to write about a topic a professor assigns to me. I would not have been able to get through 10 blog posts without being interested in this topic.

Finally, from reading other students’ blogs, as well as writing my own and reading the comments, I was again reminded how important it is to think about alternative points of view before just responding off the cuff. I have had the tendency when challenged to just react and respond, without giving at least some thought to why I disagree with an opposing viewpoint. Again, the topic I covered is not all that controversial (at least from most perspectives), but reading some of the other blogs helped me remember to listen or read and think, before responding.


I plan to continue blogging, but I am not sure whether I will have time to do so. After graduation I start my new job in a new city, then six weeks later I get to meet my son and enjoy being a dad. But if time permits, I want to continue this.

Assuming I do continue blogging, I plan to shift more to topics related to the Christian faith and the Bible, but still discuss social and ethical issues. The idea is to have a positive impact on family and friends, so hopefully I can do that.

So for now, good luck and congratulations to all of my classmates who are graduating next week. It’s been a fun couple of years.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Anti-SLAPP Counter-Argument

I read today about Michael Mann, a global-warming scientist employed by Penn State, who filed a lawsuit against a publication called the National Review seeking damages for libel. The National Review published an article by Rand Simberg alleging that Michael Mann engaged in data manipulation to obtain results that support his global warming theories. The National Review countered the lawsuit with an anti-SLAPP motion. In the motion, they argue that Mann is a public figure and that the nature of the language in the original article was intentional hyperbole of the sort often used in the global warming debate. Thus, they claim, they are protected under the First Amendment and Mann’s lawsuit constitutes SLAPP.

What I found interesting is that Mann has countered the anti-SLAPP motion on the grounds that the burden imposed by the anti-SLAPP laws is “heavy, and one unique among anti-SLAPP statues”. Most anti-SLAPP statutes require the plaintiff to demonstrate that the lawsuit is a winnable libel/defamation case. If they can’t, the case is dismissed under the anti-SLAPP motion (assuming the defendant filed the motion).

This is something I thought about when I first read about SLAPP. I thought, “if the plaintiff is required to prove the case is winnable, they basically have to lay out their entire case before it even continues to trial.” And this is obviously a huge burden on the plaintiff. Not that it may not be justified, but in cases where a lawsuit valid and the defendant invokes anti-SLAPP protection, the lawsuit just became severely difficult for the plaintiff. Then you have anti-SLAPP laws being used in the same manner than SLAPP lawsuits are used.

This where our tort system, and even our entire legal system can just go awry. Most laws are created with good intentions, many times because of an incident that happened that lawmakers want to keep from happening again. But even when carefully thought out, there will always be people who willfully violate the spirit of the law while staying within the letter of it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

SLAPP Protection for Public Officials

A District Attorney in California was sued by a sheriff after the sheriff was placed on a list of law enforcement officers with credibility issues. The DA has responded by filing a motion to dismiss the case based on California’s anti-SLAPP laws.

What makes this case a bit more interesting than the usual “you said something bad about me on Yelp so now I’m going to sue you” lawsuit is that it is against a public official, who is being sued for presumably doing his job. He claims placing the sheriff on the list was required by law, as was disclosing the list to criminal defendants with cases the members of the list were involved with.

The sheriff responded by saying his civil rights and privacy were violated, but interestingly enough makes no claim to defamation. This indicates that he is not contesting that the information leading to his placement on the list is true. Rather, he claims release of that information constitutes a violation of his civil rights and his privacy.

So this is not the usual SLAPP case, but it does highlight how our legal system can be (ab)used by a person who wants to punish someone else for sharing information that is of public interest. In this case it is two public officials, but it could just as easily be a criminal defendant suing the DA or another official simply for executing the duties of his office. And if the sheriff does in fact have a history of credibility issues, the public needs to know. And if the sheriff wants to regain legitimacy, filing a lawsuit to keep his past covered is not the way to go about it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Freedom of the Press

This is a bit of a departure from my usual subject, partly because I did not see a lot of new SLAPP news out there, but mostly because I think this is an interesting issue.

When we reference our First-Amendment rights, we are usually talking about freedom of speech. As American citizens, we enjoy broad freedom to say what we want to say, even at the offense of another person or organization, or even our own government. There are a few exceptions to that, but not many.

But the First Amendment also guarantees freedom of the press, again with only a few restrictions. The reason for this immunity from governmental antagonism is that the press must be able to truthfully report items of public interest. The press also assists citizens in holding our elected officials accountable, and sometimes that involves criticism of those officials. Our founding fathers recognized this, and they also recognized the inevitable temptation for the government to muzzle the press when criticized. So they wrote in the first amendment to our Constitution, which reads, in part, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. That is a pretty broad freedom, and I believe it was intended to be broad.

I think everyone would agree that the press is free to print or say whatever they choose, with only a few exceptions. But what about when they obtain information from a source who asks to remain anonymous? Should the reporter be forced to disclose their sources?

Today I read a story about a Fox News reporter who covered the Aurora, CO shooting last year. She reported that the counselor of James Holmes had received a file with information indicating he had made violent threats.

I won’t go over the entire story, but the issue is that, because a gag order was placed on people close to the case, Holmes’ defense attorneys are arguing that whoever the reporter’s source was violated that order. So now a judge is going to decide whether to compel the reporter to reveal her source or face time in jail.

While it is understandable that the government has an interest in preventing the sharing of national secrets or other information that could cause harm to citizens, going after the press is a very slippery slope for us as a society to start down.

We saw another instance of this a few years back with the Wikileaks founder. In that situation I had less sympathy for the journalist, mostly because he knowingly endangered the lives of many people, not to mention the damage he did to our foreign relations, when he released the files he released. But nevertheless, he revealed information that he thought proved our government was involved in unethical (to put it mildly) behavior. And because he revealed that information, he is basically a fugitive now.

So as this story continues, it will be interesting to see whether the courts interpret the First Amendment protection afforded to the press to be as broad and sacred as the protection of speech.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Anti-SLAPP Law Challenged in Federal Court

A defendant in a defamation suit appealed to a U.S. Court of Appeals to have the case dismissed under a Washington D.C.-area anti-SLAPP law. The primary issue the judges are concerned with is whether a local anti-SLAPP law has any weight at the federal level. This particular case is unique, because it seems local D.C. laws fall under the jurisdiction of federal courts, rather than a state court. So a D.C. law might not enjoy the protection normally afforded to a state law.

Which raises a whole different issue about whether D.C. should be a state, but that is beyond the scope of this discussion.

If the federal court decides the local law does not apply at the federal level, that raises an issue of whether a federal anti-SLAPP rule is needed. This should certainly be a component of any tort reform efforts taken on by Congress.

Unfortunately however, the three-judge panel has indicated it might deny the appeal on a procedural issue without ever addressing the legitimacy of the SLAPP law. Sound familiar?


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


My original intent with this blog was simply to examine the social and economic impact of the user review trend on the free market, and e-commerce in particular. But over the last few weeks I have digressed more into the issue of lawsuits related to negative/malicious reviews, and what I think is the most appropriate way for a business to respond to negative customer comments. I plan to get back to the general issue of how user reviews affect business, but first I would like to briefly discuss the SLAPP issue.

I am going to get into defining SLAPP in a minute, but first my thoughts on it. As I said in my last post, I think it is a bad idea for a business to sue a customer, no matter how justified they may be in doing so. They simply cannot win with the public in that situation. But that being said, I don’t make the assumption that a business that sues a customer or group is in the wrong by default. I only think it is a bad idea, because it is only going to cause further harm to their business. But some people who attack a business deserve whatever they get, even if the public doesn’t understand that or doesn’t like it. So in speaking against the SLAPP issue, I am more concerned with those entities that sue in an attempt, not to defend themselves or their business from unfair attacks, but because they wish to censor public conversation and silence critics.

So what is SLAPP? A SLAPP lawsuit, as defined by the Cornell University Law School,

“Stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Lawsuit filed strategically by a corporation against a group or activist opposing certain action taken by the corporation, usually in the realm of an environmental protest. Typical claims underlying a SLAPP suit are libel, slander or restraint of business. Many states have adopted anti-SLAPP statutes in the interest of protecting free speech that provide for speedy hearings of the claims and the possibility of the defendant recovering legal fees and punitive damages.”

The cases prompting SLAPP lawsuits run across a wide range of issues, from blog posts about an affluent lady, to protests against an organization, to environmental protests. And these are just issues I found through a quick Google search. There are no doubt SLAPP lawsuits related to many, many issues involving many different companies and other entities.

So when does a lawsuit cross the line from simply defending against unfair/untrue attacks to the intimidation and speech suppression of a SLAPP suit?

An organization called the First Amendment Project has a website with several First Amendment-related resources. One of those is the Anti-SLAPP Resource Center. It contains some general information related to SLAPP, including what it is, how to identify it, and how to protect against a SLAPP lawsuit. Some info taken from their website is listed below, but here is something I think helps us understand what constitutes a SLAPP lawsuit:

“Neither the context nor the specific legal theory upon which a suit is based is important in determining whether a particular case is a SLAPP. If the activity which triggers the lawsuit is constitutionally protected speech or petition activity, then the suit is a SLAPP.

It is important to recognize that SLAPP filers are not all malicious, any more than SLAPP targets are all well intentioned. The parties’ subjective motives – bad faith, intent, frivolousness, intimidation, or even rightness or wrongness on the merits – are irrelevant. The only critical issue is whether protected expressive activity triggered the suit, and is therefore at risk.

So the underlying concern in SLAPP cases is not necessarily the big guy picking on the little guy, but that one entity is attempting to rob another of their constitutionally-protected right to speech and to petition the government. So while a court can decide a lawsuit has no merit, for it to fall under the category of SLAPP, the court has to determine that the plaintiff is attempting to suppress protected speech or petition activity.

This is important, because a defamation suit might be allowed to proceed if the defendant cannot immediately demonstrate the statements made were true. But in states that have anti-SLAPP laws in place, a judge can dismiss the lawsuit if the plaintiff is unable to prove the case is winnable on legitimate grounds.

Currently, 28 states, including Arizona, have anti-SLAPP laws. This means that in those states, the court can require the filer of the lawsuit to prove upfront that the lawsuit has a probability of winning. has an interactive map of states with these statutes in place.

I took a different turn than I had expected with this blog, mostly because I wanted to provide information about these lawsuits and how the states and courts are responding to them. But I think there is an underlying issue here as well, and I may post about that next time.

For now, there is a lot of information available about this, and I encourage anyone who is interested in the subject to check it out.

From the First Amendment Project website,

How to tell if it is a SLAPP:

SLAPPs all arise out of expressive activity which is directed to public concerns. Often, SLAPPs are “camouflaged” as ordinary civil lawsuits based on traditional theories of tort or personal injury law. Among the most often used legal theories are the following:

  • Defamation. Broadly defined, this is an alleged intentional false communication, which is either published in a written form (libel) or publicly spoken (slander), that injures one’s reputation.
  • Invasion of Privacy. This legal theory refers to the unlawful use or exploitation of one’s personality, the publicizing of one’s private affairs with which the public has no legitimate concern, or the wrongful intrusion into one’s private activities.
  • Nuisance. This legal theory includes everything that endangers, or may endanger, life or health, gives offense to the senses, violates the laws of decency, or obstructs, or may obstruct, the use and enjoyment of property.
  • Malicious Prosecution or Abuse of Process. A “malicious prosecution” is a criminal or civil lawsuit which is begun with knowledge that the case lacks merit, and which is brought for a reason (e.g., to harass or annoy) other than to seek a judicial determination of the claim. The use of the legal process to intimidate or to punish the person against whom the suit is brought is generally referred to as “abuse of process.”
  • Conspiracy. A conspiracy is an alleged agreement between two or more persons to commit an illegal, unlawful, or wrongful act.
  • Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. This legal theory is based on an alleged commission of some outrageous act with the intent and knowledge that the act will result in severe mental or emotional anguish of another.
  • Interference With Contract or Economic Advantage. This legal theory is based on the alleged commission of an act with the intent to interfere with or violate a contract between two people, or hinder a business relationship which exists between those persons.

This listing is not exhaustive. Neither the context nor the specific legal theory upon which a suit is based is important in determining whether a particular case is a SLAPP. If the activity which triggers the lawsuit is constitutionally protected speech or petition activity, then the suit is a SLAPP.

It is important to recognize that SLAPP filers are not all malicious, any more than SLAPP targets are all well intentioned. The parties’ subjective motives – bad faith, intent, frivolousness, intimidation, or even rightness or wrongness on the merits – are irrelevant. The only critical issue is whether protected expressive activity triggered the suit, and is therefore at risk.


How To Remain Involved

Dialogue and freedom of expression are at the core of our democratic form of government. One way to retain our rights to free speech and petition is to continue to use them.

A good way to remain involved is to know your legal rights. Become familiar with California’s new “anti-SLAPP” statute, Code of Civil Procedure � 415.16. This statute does not guarantee that you will never be the target of a SLAPP. However, it presents a mechanism through which a judge can dismiss the suit against you at the very outset of the suit. If the judge rules that the suit must be dismissed, the SLAPP filer is required to pay the cost of your defense, including any attorneys’ fees.

Check Insurance Coverage

If you are a homeowner and carry homeowner’s insurance, check you policy for personal injury liability coverage. Many policies protect homeowners from personal injury lawsuits based on such things as defamation, nuisance, interference with contract, etc. If you can’t tell whether your policy will protect you, consult your carrier. If your present policy does not cover you, ask about a rider which would extend coverage to such matters.

Speak the Truth

Whether you are writing your government representative or speaking on an issue of public importance, always make sure your statements are factually correct. If your letters, reports, pamphlets, or other written documents are accurate, there will be no factual disputes later on. You may want to keep copies of all background materials and note sources of facts and figures quoted so that you can show where you obtained the information.


Understand that there are differences between statements of fact and statements of opinion. You may be legitimately sued for false statements of fact, but not for statements of opinion. Be careful. You will not be protected for stating, “In my opinion, Senator Squelch is a liar and a thief,” unless, of course, your statement is entirely true. If your words contain an assertion of fact that is capable of being proven true or false — i.e., that Squelch is or is not a liar and a thief — you can be sued if it is shown that your statement is false, even though you tried to qualify the statement as “opinion.”

Seek Legal Advice

If you are planning to write to a government official or speak out on a public issue, and you are unsure if your statements could subject you to a lawsuit, contact a lawyer who can assist you. The Where To Find Help section of this handbook may help you in finding a knowledgeable attorney to consult.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

So How Should a Business Respond?

As Kyle pointed out in a comment on my last blog post, a business that is the target of unfair negative reviews can suffer greatly. Many businesses rely on this system to generate word-of-mouth advertising, and it only takes a few negative user reviews to scare off new customers. But as we have seen from the news coverage related to the Dietz v. Perez case, pressing a lawsuit against an unhappy customer results in even more negative advertising. So how should a business respond?

First, I should point out that while I am a huge supporter of a free market with the fewest possible government regulations, I do not believe businesses or managers always act ethically. Some companies earn every letter of a negative review, and in those cases, the review system can help unsuspecting customers avoid an unpleasant experience. But there is also the flip side of the market, where customers behave unethically, and when they do not get their proverbial “free lunch” they turn the company into a corporate villain who is preying on the little guy. Then there are the trolls, who have probably never even used the business they are reviewing, but they just want to watch the world burn

So since we are all business students and many of us will eventually be managers or even owners of a business, I decided to look at this from the perspective of the business who receives a negative review, either fairly or unfairly.

This article discusses five steps a business can take to deal with negative online reviews. A summary of the five steps is listed below. I want to give my opinion on a few of these, but the article goes into all five of them in great detail.

First, a business should do everything they can to ensure they receive positive feedback from the customer. In the case of a brick-and-mortar establishment, they can attempt to receive preliminary feedback from the customer at the point of purchase. If the customer is legitimately unhappy with their experience, they can seek to address their issues on the spot. This avoids the perception that the company is unconcerned with customer satisfaction.

A business should also encourage customers to provide positive feedback, even going so far as to express how important it is to their business or their job. For instance, I recently purchased a car from a local dealership. The general manager and the sales person I dealt with were both pretty good. Of course, they were car salesmen, but at least they weren’t total jerks. They both referenced the customer survey I would receive at some point, and asked that, if I was satisfied with my experience, I provide positive feedback. So while that situation does not directly involve online reviews, as a customer I at least walked away knowing how important feedback is to those two individuals. And because my experience was more positive than not, I will do my best to give honest feedback.

But the absolute last thing a business should do is sue a customer. The author of the article says legal action should be a last resort. I believe if the source of the review is a real customer who had a real experience with the business, a lawsuit should never happen. It is simply a no-win situation for the business, even if they bent over backwards and provided their services free of charge. The negative publicity the company will receive as a result of a lawsuit could doom the business. In the case of a troll however, or especially in the case of a competitor that hires reviewers to write false reviews of the company, legal action may work in the company’s favor. But it should still be a last resort.

On the next post we will look a bit more closely at the issue of SLAPP lawsuits and where they started and what the courts are saying about them.

From the article “Five Steps To Successfully Navigate Online Reviews”, by Neg Norton:

1. Prevent Customers From Being Compelled To Write Negative Reviews

You should make every effort to prevent customers from getting to the point of writing a negative review. Running a business isn’t easy, and no matter how well it is run, there will always be customers who are unhappy with the product or service provided.

2. Cool Down First, Then Write Private Response

As Yelp notes in a blog post about how businesses should respond to online critics, a natural response by local businesses to negative reviews is to get emotional and overreact. This often comes in the form of lengthy public responses that dive into the weeds of disputes – turning simple matters into exhaustive and humiliating “he said-she said” debates.

3.  If Review Remains Unchanged, Evaluate Public Response

There are two scenarios where a local business may be compelled to issue a public response to a negative review. Yelp, Angie’s List, and other sites all allow for businesses to easily offer their views.

4. Legal Action Is Last Resort

Taking legal action should be your last resort as lawsuits are unpredictable and wins can have negative consequences.

5. Encourage Positive Reviews To Offset Negative Reviews

Encourage customers with positive experiences to post positive reviews to balance the negative reviews. It’s much more likely for a customer with a bad experience to take the time to post a review than for one with a positive one to share their feedback.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment