In the age of social media, a car dealer's online reviews are more important than ever before. Many car dealers combat negative online reviews by hiring an online reputation management company. A few have decided to go a different route-- sue the unsuspecting consumers posting the negative reviews.
For instance, Chicago Motor Cars sued consumer David Bates in Federal Court after he posted negative comments and videos online about his experience purchasing a Mercedes SL600 from Chicago Motor Cars. According to Bates' website, www.chicagomotorcarssucks.com, the dealership misrepresented the vehicle him. What did he do? He posted comments and videos online allegedly to warn other consumers of his experience at Chicago Motor Cars. Bates stuck out the fight in Federal Court and won his right to continue posting information online regarding his experience with Chicago Motor Cars and regarding judgments and arbitration awards that other consumers have obtained against Chicago Motor Cars. Needless to say, the strong arm attack by Chicago Motor Cars on a consumer certainly backfired for them.
However, most consumers do not have the finances to fund a battle against a car dealership just to be able to maintain their First Amendment rights to free speech. As a result, many consumers would likely be frightened by a lawsuit and quickly remove their negative online posts to avoid further litigation. And, I would guess that this is likely the goal of a car dealership who resorts to filing lawsuits against its disgruntled consumers.
So what constitutes free speech under the First Amendment when it comes to online reviews? And where do we draw the line between "chilling" free speech, and protecting a business from unsubstantiated statements by a disgruntled consumer? The answers are not clear, but with the rising importance of online reviews to businesses like car dealers, these issues are very likely to be a hot issue in Courts throughout the country in the near future.
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