The founding fathers could never have imagined what path freedom of speech has taken since our country’s inception. Case in point, a character defamation lawsuit has been filed against a Yelp user who gave a negative review to a local contractor. The defendant, Dietz Development, claims that online feedback is one of the most important ways a potential buyer or client uses when they make a decision on whether or not to use a service and is seeking $750,000 in damages. The Yelp user, Jane Perez, has been defending her claims in court since late November, stating that she was simply exercising her freedom of speech after what she felt was an unsatisfying service. A Judge in Southern California has ordered her to edit her comments via a preliminary injunction. Read more
Two court settlements have come down this week that shine light on the increasingly-common practice of videotaping police officers. In Las Vegas, Mitchell Crooks was beaten up by a police officer while videotaping a burglary investigation across the street from his house. In Boston, attorney Simon Glik was arrested and prosecuted under wiretapping laws for using his cell phone to record an arrest of another man. All charges were dropped in both cases, but both men also sued for violations to their civil rights. In both cases, they reached a settlement before going to court for a judgement, with Crooks receiving $100,000 and Glik receiving $170,000. Nearly 6 months ago, Glik’s case even went to the 1st Circuit Appeals Court, where they upheld the rights of citizens to record public police action in a landmark, often-cited decision.
The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech to all people, even if you don’t agree with what they’re saying. The town of South Hadley in Massachusetts learned that the hard way, as they have paid out a large sum of money for attempting to silence a critic at a public school board meeting in April, 2010. Luke Gelinas was at the meeting to read a prepared statement in which he criticized the school board’s inaction regarding the bullying of a student — inaction which may have led to the student’s suicide. According to the Boston Globe, Gelinas was interrupted by school board member Edward Boisselle, who told him “you’re done” and explicitly said “this is not your First Amendment right”. In fact, it was not only Gelinas’s right to speak at a meeting with public officials, but I would also argue that it is Boisselle’s duty to uphold that right. Gelinas was escorted out of the meeting, but wasn’t finished. He filed a complaint and has waged a two-year legal battle to affirm his rights. Today, via a settlement of $75,000, he has been vindicated.
What kind of country would we be if all detractors and critics and informed intellectuals were silenced by those in power and led out of the room for holding an unpopular opinion? Well, we’d be 18th-century Britain. This is exactly the reason the Declaration of Independence was written. “Taxation without representation”, a popular phrase at the time, was really more about how the British government refused to listen to the needs of the colonists. The Americans were, to draw a parallel to this case, told to leave and that they did not have the right to speak freely in Parliament. In response, they waged a revolution, built a new country, and the rest is history. While I’m not about to recommend breaking ties with South Hadley and forming a new city, I will posit this case as a reminder that the Bill of Rights is a document crafted to protect the people of the US from their government, and this is precisely why.