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Builders, Contractors Hammer Consumer Sites

Lawsuits Seek to Muzzle Critics


By Truman Lewis

May 4, 2007

1st Amendment
Builders, Contractors Hammer Consumer Sites
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Before the Internet came along, consumers had little practical recourse against homebuilders and contractors unless they were willing to wage an expensive and time-consuming legal battle. Consumer complaint sites have changed all that but builders aren't taking the criticism without fighting back.

At least three cases are now pending in the courts:

• In Bergen County, New Jersey, RSA Enterprises is suing and Google over a posting from "Heidi" of Hardyston, N.J., complaining about the construction quality of her Timberline Manor home.

• In Burtonsville, Maryland, SCS Contracting Group is suing Angie's List, a consumer Web that specializes in home improvement topics. The suit charges the site with tortious interference and fraud, claiming it trumped up accusations from consumers.

• And in Mt. Holly, New Jersey, WBG Builders is suing ConsumerAffairs.Com and Charlene and Daniel Garlic, consumers who complained about WBG.

In the Bergen County case, RSA's owner, Raffi Arslanian, said the posting is inaccurate and is harming his reputation and his business. He said three separate banks refused to loan him money after they ran a Google search and found the RipOffReport posting.

RipOffReport's founder Ed Magedson, said he has no intention of removing the "Heidi" posting, according to the Newark Star-Ledger. He said his site provides the opportunity to post rebuttals and Arslanian should take advantage of that opportunity.

"It's not the 20th century anymore," he said. "We're all going to be blogged, good or bad. Get over it and try to respond. It's a sign of the times," according to the Star-Ledger.

Angie's List founder Angie Hicks, meanwhile, said her site would "vigorously defend" against Sieber's suit.

"The First Amendment is a powerful thing. We strongly believe that we are on solid legal footing in this case," she told The Washington Post.

ConsumerAffairs.Com President James R. Hood said he could not comment on pending litigation.

Consumers Have the Edge

Most First Amendment experts agree that consumers have a right to express their opinions about the products and services they buy, so long as the comments are truthful. By the same token, publishers are generally on solid footing so long as they take reasonable precautions and are not reckless.

It is, ultimately, consumers who bear the burden of being truthful in their comments, not publishers who have no way of verifying the truthfulness of every single comment they publish, most experts agree.

A legal scholar quoted by the Star-Ledger agreed. John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, said the Communications Decency Act of 1996 holds that online intermediaries are not liable for bad acts of their users.

In recent cases, consumers and online publishers have prevailed against attempts to silence them.

• In February 2007, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo reached a settlement with Blue Coat Systems, whose end user license had previously prohibited customers from publishing test results about the product.

• In October 2006, a Florida judge ruled against an attorney who had sought to block the release of a video game that he found objectionable.

• In August 2005, two Florida dentists dropped a lawsuit that sought to shut down a Web site critical of their dental prowess and business practices.

• In 2004, Life Alert withdrew two libel and unfair competition suits against ConsumerAffairs.Com.

"We're grateful that the First Amendment enables us to meet our readers' need for untainted consumer information," said ConsumerAffairs.Com Founder & CEO James R. Hood in reference to the Life Alert case. "We will continue to put our readers' interests first and will vigorously resist those who try to silence us."

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If you've had a bad experience with a consumer product or service, we'd like to hear about it. All complaints are reviewed by class action attorneys and are considered for publication on our site. Knowledge is power! Help spread the word. File your consumer report now.

Consumer News

May 7 2007

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