Free Speech Isn’t Free If There’s A Price

William Laurence Stanley left an unflattering review on Yelp about a mergers and acquisitions company, Generational Equity. For his efforts, he was convicted of a crime. He argues that his conviction violates his First Amendment rights.

Stanley, 54, says he was exercising his right to free speech and that everything he wrote about the company is true. He vowed to seek a trial and mount a First Amendment defense.

“This is America and you cannot shut up someone that is speaking the truth,” Stanley wrote The Dallas Morning News from prison via an email service.

Outrageous? Well, not so fast.

William Laurence Stanley was charged on Dec. 6 in federal court in Dallas with a crime for his blog posts about Generational Equity, a Dallas merger and acquisitions company he once did work for. That’s because Stanley was convicted last year of extorting the company. Stanley had threatened to ruin the firm’s reputation by flooding the internet with false and negative information unless it paid him about $29,500.

There are two things happening at the same time here. The first is Stanley’s claim that his negative comments are true, and thus he has a right to express them. The second is that he will refrain from doing so if the company pays him some loot for his troubles.

This gives rise to an interesting scenario. Assuming, arguendo, that Stanley’s comments are neither false nor defamatory, but merely negative, does that make it extortion that he is willing to forego the exercise of a constitutional right if the target of his venom pays him off?

Unsurprisingly, Stanley hooked up with Generational Equity under dubious circumstances.

Stanley, who owned a “search engine optimization,” or SEO business, said he was released from federal custody on Nov. 4. He said he wrote the controversial posts about Generational Equity prior to that, from a halfway house. He was arrested Nov. 30 and charged with the new offense after Generational Equity complained to the FBI about the online reviews.

Stanley’s line of work was improving companies’ online reputations.

Generational Equity hired him in 2009 for online reputation management, court records show. The firm fired him about a year later, for acting “outside his contracted duties.”

Reputation management may be one of the dirtiest businesses on the internet, as Paul Alan Levy and Eugene Volokh have recently exposed. And if they aren’t trying to game the legal system, they’re blowing smoke. But it’s hard to be particularly sympathetic to any business that puts a snake on retainer. After all, they knew he was a snake when they hired him.

Stanley began sending threatening emails to Generational Equity in December 2013, records show.

Stanley had threatened to link the company to a scam in online posts that would rank high in a Google search of the company’s name, an FBI complaint said. The firm paid him $80,000 in 2010 and 2011 to end the relationship, authorities said.

Stanley copped a plea for extortion, but he wasn’t done yet. After his release to a halfway house, Stanley persisted in expressing his thoughts about Generational Equity, despite a prohibition imposed on him.

In November, an additional prohibition was added to his list of probation conditions. It said he shall not “post anything online” regarding the victims “without first seeking permission from his probation officer or this court.”

Stanley said he was not on probation,* but at a halfway house, when he wrote the posts in question.

Having served his time for extortion, and claiming his content was both true and opinion, was this a violation of Stanley’s First Amendment rights, prior restraint, and more significantly, imprisonment for the exercise of free speech?

“The blog had links to approximately 67 articles/blogs/complaints which were intended to portray GE in a bad light,” the FBI complaint said.

One headline said, “The whole thing is a SCAM,” according to the FBI. And one of the comments said, “Had to do a lot of illegal stuff.”

The Bureau of Prisons sent Stanley back to the halfway house.

There are a lot of moving parts here, and nobody who’s likely to win a washing machine on Queen for a Day. The contention now is that Stanley is posting negative reviews in retaliation for Generational Equity’s complaining of his extortion. But if his comments aren’t defamatory, so what?

The First Amendment Center, located at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and at the Newseum in Washington D.C., says libel cases over online comments are increasing.

“Unfortunately, not all complainers can be counted on to give an accurate and fair account, and a business can be damaged irreparably by false allegations,” Ken Paulson, president of the center, wrote on the organization’s website in 2013.

He said courts have generally ruled that the First Amendment protects comments that are opinion while unsupported statements can lead to legal liability.

While this generic discussion of the distinction between false facts and opinion may be fine, it offers nothing as to Stanley’s issue, which is whether his exercise of free speech, in light of the prohibition imposed by the court, should result in incarceration. The question is whether Stanley, regardless of his motives, can be denied his right to free speech as a condition of release.

If Stanley’s negative Yelp review was false and defamatory, then the recourse is a libel suit, a civil action for damages. Instead, he’s in federal jail for, he claims, telling the truth. No matter how unsympathetic he may be, or how ill-motivated his comments, it remains an exercise of free speech, and that isn’t supposed to be a crime no matter how much some want it to be.

*This likely refers to supervised release.

8 comments on “Free Speech Isn’t Free If There’s A Price

  1. Patrick Maupin

    No matter how unsympathetic he may be, or how ill-motivated his comments, it remains an exercise of free speech, and that isn’t supposed to be a crime no matter how much some want it to be.

    There is no question that more speech is better for society as a whole, especially in the case of a rat apparently truthfully turning on all the other rats.

    But we’re already a long way down the slippery slope. It’s easy to imagine a prosecutor making a very simplistic argument that will resonate with a judge, e.g. we’ve already decided violent felons can have their second amendment rights curtailed, so the ability of a court to curtail first amendment rights of felons who use speech as a weapon should be a no-brainer.

    Reply
      1. Patrick Maupin

        Apparently, “weaponized speech” is a thing. A trigger warning may be appropriate here — google at your peril.

        Reply
      2. CD

        It does, but we’ve all seen it before.

        Correctional officer to my client: You’ll suffer my pen.

        And lo, a new criminal case was born.

        Reply
  2. markm

    As for the suggestion of a libel suit, unless Stanley was independently wealthy before he went to prison, he is now judgment proof.

    Reply
  3. Ken Mackenzie

    Put the Constitutional issue aside, and the restriction is still not in the public interest. If this guy had the inside word on a corrupt police chief, a polluting company, or a ripoff merchant then he should not be penalised for enlightening us.

    Reply

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