Amazon Strikes a Blow In Defense of Free Speech

by A. J. Delgado
The online retail giant punishes a company for threatening a customer.

Amazon.com has taken a stand for free speech by smacking down a retailer that accused a negative online reviewer of defamation.

It all started early this month when a Florida man posted a negative review of a Mediabridge wireless router on Amazon.com. His review alleged that many of the positive reviews about the product on Amazon could be fake and that the router was identical to another company’s router.

What happened next may shock you. The reviewer reportedly then received a letter from a Philadelphia law firm, threatening to sue him for defamation and other related causes of action. On Reddit last week, he wrote:

Left a review on a router on Amazon, got a letter in the mail threatening to sue me for “slander, defamation, product disparagement, fraud, libel and libel per se”.

They are demanding that I: Agree to never purchase any of their products 2) Agree to never publicly comment online about their products 3) Delete the review immediately…. If you want to contribute to my legal fees, just message me for a link. I haven’t been served yet, so hopefully it won’t come to that.

Over the past several years, several courts have awarded significant damages for purportedly defamatory statements made in online reviews, a trend that has many in the legal community concerned about its chilling effect on individuals’ ability to express themselves openly and review products or services. Defamation is certainly a key and necessary component of tort law, often used to correct severe wrongs. But is the balance tilting too far? Certainly society has an interest in vigorously defending consumers’ rights to post their opinions and experiences, as well as to read other consumers’ views, without fear of legal repercussions.

Amazon responded last week by revoking Mediabridge’s ability to sell on Amazon. As National Journal reported:

Leaders at Mediabridge now say that Amazon has revoked the company’s seller account, preventing the sale of Mediabridge products on Amazon.com—the only site through which it currently sells its products. That might mean the loss of jobs for many of the company’s employees, the company claims.

“All of this is due to misinformation which was blown out of proportion by individuals on a social media site who acted first, before questioning whether the information they had was accurate or not,” representatives of the company said in a statement. “This is the reality of this situation. Remember that there is a human aspect to this story.”

Mediabridge still defends the actions it took against the Amazon user, who had originally claimed the company was bullying him and threatening to sue for a simple negative review.

Even setting aside the fact that Mediabridge violated its agreement with Amazon (companies who sell on Amazon are prohibited from asking users to remove negative reviewers), the Seattle giant is in the right.

Speech is being stifled in every regard across America, with ordinary folks losing their jobs or socially conservative celebrities being put through the ringer. Kirsten Dunst is accused of not being feminist enough, while Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones is punished for tweeting his view on the Michael Sam kiss. On campuses, words like “fiesta” are deemed racist.

State governments have done their part, too, by enacting a plethora of poorly worded, overly broad “bullying” laws. Americans can barely open their mouths without fear of severe repercussion. Had a bad experience at a doctor’s office? Think twice about leaving that review on Yelp! Send someone a mean e-mail? Careful, you may be guilty of cyberbullying! Have a view on a political issue? Posting about it on Facebook might cost you your job. In fact, think twice before you write or say much of anything.

While Mediabridge claims it only threatened to sue the man, the distinction is a ridiculous stretch. Threatening to sue has nearly as chilling an effect as an actual suit filed. The tactic is simple — scare Average Joe into removing what he said and simultaneously send a message to anyone else who might criticize you. The effect, however, is not so simple: when writing a negative review, how negative is too negative? What will be considered ‘defamatory’? Is it best not to write one at all and avoid the potential aggravation of a potential lawsuit and needing to hire a costly attorney? That is the message sent.

Is it annoying for a company to have reviews, perhaps containing false, damaging information, posted online? Of course it is. But consumers are savvy enough to sort through reviews and consider the bad with the good. Moreover, Amazon allows users to rate and comment on a review — in other words, the company has the opportunity to respond and defend itself immediately below the user’s review, for anyone to see and consider. Rather than doing so, Mediabridge instead went straight for the jugular — sending an intimidating letter to an Average Joe.

This story is not about Amazon’s policies or about companies trying to maintain their reputation. This is about speech and its rapidly deteriorating state in America.

Amazon struck a blow for us all.

(Feel free to express yourselves in Comments field below — just don’t go too crazy! In 2014 America, someone might sue you.)

— A. J. Delgado is a conservative writer and lawyer.