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Internet Critic of Auto Dealer Was Unfairly Told to Dismantle Web Site

June 11, 2002

Internet Critic of Auto Dealer Was Unfairly Told to Dismantle Web Site

Court Should Reconsider Sweeping First Amendment Restriction on Criticisms Posted on the Internet, Public Citizen Says

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? The dissatisfied customer of an Alabama auto dealership should not have been forced to remove all mention of the dealership from a Web site critical of the dealership, essentially forcing him to dismantle the site. Also, the court that squelched the man?s criticisms should re-examine its order, Public Citizen argued in a motion filed this week with the U.S. District Court in Alabama.

In May, the court granted a request by Crown Pontiac-Nissan of Hoover, Ala., for an injunction preventing its customer, Thomas Ballock, from using the dealership?s name in the domain name or even in the text of his site. Ballock had great difficulty presenting a defense because he did not have an attorney at the time of the court hearing on the injunction. Nor had he read or understood all of the papers submitted by Crown?s attorneys. The court should not have granted the dealership?s request because it violated Ballock?s First Amendment rights and because he did not violate trademark law, Public Citizen said.

“If Crown?s position in this case were correct, then consumers are prohibited from criticizing businesses on the Internet,” said Amanda Frost, an attorney for the Public Citizen Litigation Group who wrote the brief. “That result would clearly violate consumers? First Amendment rights.”

Ballock?s dispute with Crown began in February after problems with the installation of a sunroof in a new car. He created the site www.crownpontiacnissan.com, where he chronicled his experience with the dealership and discussed the ways in which arbitration, a private dispute resolution system, could hurt consumers. He placed prominent disclaimers on his site so that users would not confuse it with Crown?s official Web site, and included a link to Crown?s site for those who had reached his site in error.

Nonetheless, Crown?s attorney?s argued that Ballock had violated trademark laws and the Anti-cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act. However, Crown?s name has not been registered as a trademark, and Crown?s arguments produced no evidence of a loss of consumer sales or disruption of business due to the site. The anticybersquatting law was designed to prevent private citizens from buying up prominent domain names and selling them to corporations. Ballock made no attempt to sell the domain name to Crown.

Following the injunction, Ballock removed his site completely from the Internet and does not use the name “Crown Pontiac” in any Web site. He has built a new site, www.hoovernissandealersucks.com, briefly describing his experiences with an unnamed car dealership and problems with the arbitration system.

In its brief, Public Citizen argues that the preliminary injunction was a sweeping restriction that improperly imposes prior restraint on Ballock?s First Amendment rights to consumer commentary. If the court looks carefully at the case, it will see that Crown is unlikely to be able to show that the Web site infringed on its trademark or that it was damaged by the site?s existence. Further, there is no evidence that Ballock hoped to gain financially from the site.

“Crown is trying to keep any criticism of its business off the Web,” Frost said. “At the very least, Ballock should be able to name Crown in the text, if not in the domain name.”

Public Citizen is involved in this case because it has a history of defending free speech on the Internet.?Click here to view a?copy of the filing, and click here to view Ballock’s answer to the complaint against him.