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Is "Free speech" allowed on the internet?

Los Angeles, CA |

I'm a website operator and have some questions regarding written content on the internet: 1) Am I allowed to openly criticize businesses, products and people (politicians, celebrities, etc) on a website if I don't use or link to any copyrighted materials of these entities? 2) Am I allowed to display trademarks and share my opinion about the company behind them and if yes, do I need to display a "TM", "SM" or "R" along with the name? 3) Is it even legal if those statements are untrue (eg. Microsoft is evil because of *something made up*)? 4) Is it possible to shut down such free-speech websites? 5) Is it still legal to operate such a website if I also display text advertisements on the same page to pay for server, bandwidth and administration costs? Thank you so much for you answers!

Attorney Answers 2

  1. No, free speech was just a limited-time introductory offer. Now it costs 2.5¢ per word, when you order in pages of 1000.

    1. Generally yes. You may get in trouble if your idea of "criticizing" is "threatening to kill," or if you criticize individuals who are not public figures, or for non-public activities.

    2. You may use the names of companies or products as necessary to identify or describe them, but you must not imply that the companies sponsor or are responsible for your material (unless that's true). You can use logos too, but you have to be more careful: you shouldn't (for example) put a huge IBM logo on the header of a page that trashes IBM. Add the "TM" or "R" symbol if you know the status of the trademark. It doesn't hurt to include a disclaimer that marks are the property of the registered owners, and not of the website owner.

    3. Untrue statements of fact could get you in trouble. Untrue statements of opinion are less problematic, but I think you could still take some heat if your site was full of statements like "In my opinion, (Famous Company) is responsible for (outrageous derogatory claim)."

    4. Yes.

    5. Using others' trademarks in a way that they might find offensive, and making money off it, will increase the risk that somebody will get annoyed enough to make your life unpleasant. It will also increase the risk that you'll get in trouble for what you're doing, and have to stop. It may wind up costing you some money, at least to pay lawyers to defend you from trademark infringement and/or defamation suits.

    Using others' trademarks, even in a way that they might ordinarily not find offensive, and making money off it, will also increase the risk that somebody will make your life unpleasant in an effort to get you to stop.

  2. While the above answer is both thorough and accurate, I remind you that large corporations and celebrities may sue you to stop your content even if your content is protected by the First Amendment. Since the law in this area is not rigidly black and white and open to interpetation, anyone suing you will not likely to be sanctioned for frivolous litigation, particularly if your speech is very hateful and strong. So just be aware that you are almost asking to be sued if this is the intent of the website's content.