ANTI SLAPP MONTH: Blogger gets SLAPPed for passing on government warnings

By J. DeVoy

At Elliott.org, the story of a travel insurance company’s SLAPP suit against the blog’s writer, Christopher Elliott, rises from the murk and into daylight.  In March of 2009, Elliott reported that Florida regulators had warned three travel insurance agencies, all of which were offering policies from bankrupt Prime Travel Protection Services, that their conduct may violate state law.

Elliott quoted statements made by a spokeswoman for Florida’s Department of Financial Services, indicating the state ordered the insurance agencies to stop selling unauthorized policies, and that further activity was pending.  This was clarified in a subsequent press release from the state of Florida:

As a result of ongoing investigations into complaints about the sale of unauthorized travel insurance in Florida, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink has notified three travel agencies that she intends to order them to stop selling insurance.

This clarification was immediately noted on Elliott’s blog.

This would seem like important, newsworthy information to publicize — unless you’re Palm Coast Travel.  While some businesses would have tried to resolve the issue as quickly and quietly as possible, Palm Coast Travel brought suit against one of its customers, Peter Lay, and Elliott, filing this complaint.

Elliot provided this excerpt of the complaint on his blog:

Elliott included among his reporting recent regulatory investigations of customer complaints regarding Prime Travel Protection and Jerry Watson. Elliott’s reporting included publication of false information regarding Palm Coast, which has and will continue to damage Palm Coast’s business unless it is properly remedied.

Among the statements Elliott published were falsehoods that stated that Palm Coast had been ordered to cease doing business by the State of Florida. No such order exists, and therefore that report was false.

Further, Elliott, when purporting to “clarify” his deliberately false statement regarding the State of Florida’s investigation of travel insurance, did not fully remedy the false impression he fostered regarding Palm Coast’s role.

Elliott’s falsehoods were directed at, among other aspects of Palm Coast’s business, its reputation in the trade or industry of travel. Moreover, Elliott did not properly correct, clarify, or retract his falsehoods, despite proper notice.

In developing situations, facts get garbled and details are lost.  On Setpember 11, 2001, there were repeated claims that a bomb had gone off at the State Department that later turned out to be false.  Here, Elliott reported the information he had, when he had it, and clarified the State’s statements once more facts were available.

These kinds of actions threaten to shoot the messenger, and shoot him or her dead.  Where an apology or clarification would have been sufficient, a lawsuit has been filed, and with the hope that Elliott will never engage in this kind of speech again.

The Citizen Participation Act, a bill that will introduce new punishments against these kinds of SLAPP cases, reward defendants who are wrongly sued, and ensure that only constitutionally protected speech is preserved, has been introduced to Congress. Send a letter to your representative supporting this bill today.

5 Responses to ANTI SLAPP MONTH: Blogger gets SLAPPed for passing on government warnings

  1. David Dole says:

    Mr/Ms DeVoy I have been following this story with great interest. The lawsuit against this blogger was not brought by a travel insurance company. It was brought by a travel agent, who sold an “insurance” plan (by legal definition) that was not permitted to be sold in the state (Florida) and it was sold without a license. The travel agent had previously been issued a notice of intent to issue a cease and desist order for violating various state regulations regarding the unauthorized sale. It is my professional opinion, that any court will find this suit not only lacks merit, but falls clearly into the definition of a lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP). If this meritless lawsuit moves forward I see sanctions aginst plaintiff’s attorney and a rich countersuit if the defendant elects to pursue such an avenue. I am sorry I do not have a license to practice in Florida as I would take this case for free on behalf of the defendant.

  2. Rachel says:

    I can’t wait for defendants to get rewards for being unjustly sued.

  3. Josh says:

    What is also interesting is the defamation charges brought against one of the customers of this travel agency. The customer merely has stated the facts that the state of Florida has alleged against the agency in their order. There appears to be only one reason why the suit was brought forward and that is to stop both the blogger and customer from speaking out about the alleged illegal activities of the travel agency.

  4. EliLaw says:

    The customer-defendant has been accused by the plaintiff of calling the latter’s action a “scam”.

    The blog and order indicate that the travel agency’s sale of this policy to the customer-defendant is not isolated – wouldn’t a reasonable mind come to the conclusion that this is a scam? One sale and okay someone didn’t do their homework. But multiple sales?

    The plaintiff claims that the customer-defendant filed a complaint with the state of Florda…so? Is this actionable? In a police state, yes. Not in a democracy. The plaintiff claims the customer-defendant accused the travel agency of violating Florida law…the state of Florida obviously concurs. The customer-defendant claims there will be criminal charges brought…can the plaintiff confirm that this is not a truthful statement? I doubt it. Plaintiff accuses customer-defendant of statement that travel agency misrepresented the nature of the travel protection purchased…read the order from the state – this is exactly what the travel agency is being accused of doing.

    This suit is not only meritless, but is truly shameful. The defendants should pursue a counter action. This lawsuit would be like Toyota suing a customer who has spoken out against the problems with their car’s brake system. Do you think any judge, anywhere would have sympathy for Toyota?

  5. me says:

    “This lawsuit would be like Toyota suing a customer who has spoken out against the problems with their car’s brake system. Do you think any judge, anywhere would have sympathy for Toyota?”

    –Actually, yes, I do. There are a lot of drivers out there who are probably knowingly blaming driver error on the car not working. I think Toyota would get plenty of sympathy if it filed a defamation case in that context.

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