First Amendment in a Digital World

I was recently notified by a new client that someone had posted a very disparaging comment about me and my business on a website entitled  This is a website that’s supposed to be a public forum for consumers who wish to express their grievances against companies that may be engaged in consumer fraud.    Initially, this was very troubling for me because I was completely flabbergasted at the notion of a new client presenting me with extremely derogatory public information about my company.

But, I explained the situation to my client and assured them that this was a bizarre situation whereby, a former client attempted to hire one of my candidate’s without compensating me.    Later I discovered that the candidate had inside contacts with the client and was using me to bolster his chances of gaining employment with my client. 

Apparently, the candidate was able to successfully circumvent me and eventually received an offer from the company without my knowledge.  Which means that both the candidate and the client were attempting to conceal their dealings in an effort to avoid paying me a placement fee.   In response to their surreptitious efforts, I chastised both the candidate and the client for attempting to deceive me and my company. 

The candidate feeling scorned, felt obligated to post disparaging and defamatory remarks online about my company.    I’m sure that many business people have encountered the very same situation that I experienced;  and with the increase and popularity of sites such as RipOff and other similar sites, it makes me wonder if private citizens like myself are the ones being “ripped off”.

Every citizen has the right to express their freedom of speech under the protection of the First Amendment, but sites like Rip Off Report perpetuate an environment where anonymous people can post spurious comments about businesses, without VETTING the comments before they’re posted.   

If their website was really interested in citizen’s rights, why wouldn’t they have forwarded this candidate’s grievance to me before posting it on their website?

The proliferation of these sites are troubling because it allows anonymous people to post defamatory comments about businesses, forcing the business owners into a  Jerry Springer-like public brawl, except the owners are completely unaware of their opponent’s identity.

A start-up company has added even more controversy to this debate by allowing anonymous people to post comments about their former co-workers.  Peter Kazanjy, a little-known San Francisco entrepreneur, has launched a controversial website that overnight has turned him into a very public and not very popular figure.  His site is like Yelp for people, a “reputation marketplace” where anyone can post anonymous reviews about anyone else.  (Source: Los Angeles Times)

If sites such as Unvarnished continue to flourish, I predict that the number of defamation lawsuits will skyrocket.   Defamation lawsuits are typically filed by former employees or public figures who seek redress for unfounded comments about their character. 

These websites create an unfair environment that perpetuate a one-sided argument and they should not be protected under the First Amendment because simply having the freedom of expression doesn’t entitle them to allow anonymous people to defame co-workers or businesses.   Nor should it automatically force the defendants into an online public arena to defend their reputation.   

It’s probably a good idea to research sites such as Unvarnished to see if someone has posted negative comments about you.  Hopefully, the public outcry will become so vociferous that Congress will have to enact protective measures, such as requiring the complainant to reveal their identity, which seems like the only way to level the playing field, so that unsuspecting citizens aren’t the ones left feeling “ripped off”.

Barrington Ross


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