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National Retailer Tries to Short-Circuit Unhappy Customer’s Web Site

March 23, 2000

National Retailer Tries to Short-Circuit
Unhappy Customer’s Web Site

Ohio Customer Blew a Fuse Over Circuit City’s Advertising

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A disgruntled customer who co-created a Web site devoted to airing complaints about Circuit City Stores should not be ordered to dismantle the site, Public Citizen argued in a brief filed today in federal court in Ohio.

Circuit City has sued Steven Shane, a Kentucky lawyer representing unhappy Circuit City customer Maury Tepper. Tepper, who lives near Cincinnati, Ohio, has sued Circuit City alleging that the company engaged in false advertising and sales practices.

After filing the suit, Tepper and Shane created the Web site, outlining Tepper’s experiences, his reason for suing and a copy of his complaint. The Web site also provided a link to the Federal Trade Commission’s complaints page and featured a “guestbook” where site visitors could post their own experiences with Circuit City.

Because the Web site was legally filed in Shane’s name, Circuit City sued Shane in February 2000, alleging that Shane violated trademark law and professional conduct codes. The suit also alleged that Shane used the company’s name and distinctive colors to divert customers from Circuit City’s Web site to his own and to solicit clients to expand the lawsuit. Along with its complaint, the company asked the court to issue an injunction that would forbid the use of Circuit City’s name anywhere on the Web site, which would effectively shut it down.

In the brief, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Ohio, Public Citizen Litigation Group attorney Paul Alan Levy argued that granting such an injunction would violate the First Amendment and that trademark law does not forbid the use of a company’s name to inform the public about alleged corporate wrongdoing. He also noted that the Web site did not solicit people to join the lawsuit.

“It’s ridiculous and outrageous that a company, particularly a company the size of Circuit City, is attempting to silence a customer simply because he had a bad experience,” Levy said. “It is a blatant attempt to rob him of his First Amendment rights.”

Several other dissatisfied customers have created protest sites directed at Circuit City. If Circuit City can force a lawyer such as Shane to close his site, it is likely that lay persons will be even more intimidated and would have to close their sites as well, Levy said.

Circuit City’s lawsuit mirrors one filed last year by Terminix, the well-known pest control company, its parent corporation, ServiceMaster, and several ServiceMaster subsidiaries against an unhappy customer who created a Web site in which other unhappy Terminix customers posted their gripes. After extensive adverse publicity and a vigorous legal defense by Public Citizen, Terminix dropped its lawsuit earlier this month.