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Unhappy Customer Keeps First Amendment Right to Voice Complaints on the Web

Feb. 10, 2003

Unhappy Customer Keeps First Amendment Right to Voice Complaints on the Web

WASHINGTON, D.C. – An Alabama auto dealership has given up its attempts to silence an online critic, choosing to dismiss its case against a dissatisfied consumer who built a Web site critical of the dealership rather than pursue its efforts to trample the consumer’s First Amendment rights. Crown Pontiac-Nissan of Hoover, Ala., has filed a notice that it was dismissing its case against Thomas Ballock, who is represented by Public Citizen. In a settlement agreement between the two parties, Crown Pontiac-Nissan agreed to drop its case and promised not to pursue any legal action against Ballock based on his Web site; in return, Ballock promised not to sue Crown for malicious prosecution or other misconduct based on its lawsuit.

Ballock created a Web site criticizing Crown because he was unhappy with the car he purchased at Crown’s dealership and with Crown’s response to his complaints about the car. Ballock constructed the site in February at www.crownpontiacnissan, detailing his experience with the dealership and discussing the ways in which arbitration, a private dispute resolution system, could hurt consumers.

In April, the dealership sought and received from the U.S. District Court in Alabama a preliminary injunction forcing Ballock to dismantle his site. The injunction prevented Ballock from using Crown’s name not only in the domain name and metatags of the site, but also in the text. At the time the injunction was issued, Ballock did not yet have an attorney and had not read the papers seeking an injunction submitted by Crown’s attorneys.

In May, Public Citizen took over the litigation as Ballock’s legal counsel. Public Citizen became involved in the case because of its longstanding interest in protecting consumers’ First Amendment right to engage in consumer commentary in any medium, including on the Internet. On Ballock’s behalf, Public Citizen asked the court to lift its injunction prohibiting Ballock from criticizing Crown on the Internet.

After Public Citizen became involved, the dealership backpedaled on some of the arguments on which the injunction was based, but it continued to argue that Ballock’s Web site should be enjoined. In July, the judge lifted his injunction and Ballock re-posted his Web site on the Internet. 

Click here to read briefs filed in this case, as well as information on other similar cases.

“Crown first said the site violated its trademark law, then changed its tune when we pointed out that it had never registered the name as a trademark,” said Amanda Frost, an attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation Group, who represented Ballock. “Crown then claimed trademark protection under a law protecting non-registered trademarks from commercial use, but that was an untenable argument because Ballock’s site was clearly noncommercial. In addition, Crown could not demonstrate that customers were confused as to the intent of Ballock’s Web site, and thus would not have prevailed in any event. This settlement is a reaffirmation of consumers’ First Amendment rights to criticize products and services on the Internet.”