Investment Bank Says Criticism Is Trademark Infringement; Gets Misplaced Injunction Against Web Forum
from the not-good dept
So many companies (and individuals) get up in arms over a bit of criticism, assuming that anything they don’t like must be illegal. On top of that, they regularly blame the owners of the websites where that criticism occurs, rather than whoever actually created the criticism. Usually the courts see through this stuff, but sometimes companies are able to get around all of that with some quick lawyering. In a particularly egregious example, the investment bank Houlihan Smith got upset at the websites 800notes.com and Whocallsme.com, both run by Julia Forte as forums where people can discuss telemarketing practices (we’ve pointed out how Forte has been fighting other misguided legal attacks in the past as well). As with many companies that find people criticizing themselves on Forte’s website, Houlihan Smith demanded that she remove comments. She responded by pointing out that company representatives are free to respond to the complaints in the comments.
Instead, it appears that Houlihan Smith went straight to court… and got a temporary restraining order against Forte that prohibits people from posting comments — even if they’re factual — about Houlihan Smith to Forte’s websites. So how did they get such a temporary restraining order when pretty much all case law notes that Forte is protected by Section 230? Well, it looks like they’re claiming that the critical comments (and there were lots of them) weren’t just defamatory (the usual claim) but were trademark infringement — which, by way of judicial accident is not covered by Section 230. But people posting their opinions or factual information about a company cannot be trademark infringement. The company also claims a violation of the “right of publicity,” because some employees are named. Of course, “right of publicity” is supposed to be used to prevent you from using someone’s name or likeness in an advertising context. Someone accurately claiming that “so-and-so called me” is not a violation of anyone’s right of publicity. Furthermore, the company apparently only gave Forte 90 minutes of notice via email that it was going to court (800 miles from where she lives) to get the restraining order.
Totally blocking a website from allowing people to express their opinions and criticisms of a company’s telemarketing practices seems like a blatant violation of the First Amendment.
Either way, it seems like Houlihan Smith and its lawyers haven’t realized a basic fact about the internet: if you try to stifle free speech that you don’t like, it only draws a hell of a lot more attention to that speech. Perhaps Houlihan Smith would have been better off responding to the criticism, rather than using questionable legal claims to try to silence an entire forum.