Chilling Effect: Using Frivolous Lawsuits to Intimidate Free Speech

Protest Sign from the Charles St. Apartments Protest. Photo taken by my wife

Protest Sign from the Charles St. Apartments Protest. Photo taken by my wife

I haven’t written on my blog since January.  There’s a reason.

Back in November of 2014, I was the target of a frivolous defamation lawsuit by notorious Seattle landlord, Carl Haglund, after I made a post on Yelp! relating my experience as a former tenant of his. I later found out I wasn’t alone. See the other posts for more details.

For nearly a year, as the machine of the legal system slowly churned, this lawsuit soured my enthusiasm for online self-expression. I’m sure this was the intent. Thankfully at the end of that difficult year, a judge ruled in a summary judgement that Haglund’s lawsuit was frivolous and a waste of the court’s time, as the Seattle PI reported earlier this month.

Carl Haglund knew from the start that his lawsuit had no merit. He gambled on the likelihood that the case would never come before a judge. He was hoping I would not be resourceful enough to know how to respond or too poor fight back.  He was hoping to intimidate me, make my life a living hell or bankrupt me so that I would settle before a judge would ever see the case. His only intention was to retaliate against my negative post and achieve two end results:

  1. Have my post taken down/amended in his favor.
  2. Make an example of me so other tenants would remain silent.

Instead, in the words of the aforementioned Seattle PI article, Haglund’s attempt failed “spectacularly.”

In a turn of good luck, the Washington State Tenant’s Union, City Council Members Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata and City Council Candidate Jon Grant held a protest in front of one of Mr. Haglund’s buildings (not mine. Mine wasn’t that bad, but it was bad) days before the lawsuit was scheduled to go before the court.  There was coverage about the building on KIRO7, KING5, the Seattle Times and the Stranger.  So when the date of the summary judgement arrived, there was interest in the press.  The judgement would have probably turned out the same, regardless. His complaint was without merit and we had an excellent case. Without the visibility from the other protests, however, my case would not have received attention it had from the press.  I could not have hoped for such a glowing vindication in the public record after such a difficult year.

Although this was a personal victory, I couldn’t help but think of all the people who don’t have the resources to fight litigious harassment like this. The ease with which Haglund was able to file this frivolous lawsuit was deeply disturbing. To think of the number of times he has done this to others, never mind the growing number of frivolous retaliatory lawsuits over negative Yelp! reviews across the country is an incredibly disturbing threat to free speech.

If I didn’t have the resources to fight this lawsuit, I would have been screwed. I may have had to seek a settlement and likely agree to delete/amend my constitutionally protected post. I may have been in dire financial straits as a result. I would have been emotionally crushed. I suspect this happens to people all the time.

This experience has taught me that, if frivolous lawsuits are allowed to move forward like this, the first amendment is basically a luxury of the rich. As a Librarian and a decent human being that makes me really fucking pissed.

Defamation is a real problem and people should have the right to sue when there is an actual case of slander or libel against them.  But there should also be a mechanism where frivolous suits used merely as an intimidation tactic should be halted early on in the process.  Ideally this would be preemptively prevented by the oath a lawyer takes when administered to the bar, but in this case that didn’t happen.

I have no idea what such a mechanism would look like. But I do know we could create it if there was substantial political will do so.  How many individuals will have to be unnecessarily silenced, punished and have their first amendment right to protected speech infringed on before that happens is an open question.

On a lighter note, since the protests and the ruling other current and former tenants are begining to speak out about their experiences online. There’s now safety in numbers and, hopefully, they are free of legal and financial intimdation so they may draw public attention to the issues of weak housing code enforcement amidst an exponentially escalating housing crisis in Seattle.

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2 Responses to Chilling Effect: Using Frivolous Lawsuits to Intimidate Free Speech

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