(Note: This is not being written by a lawyer and does not constitute legal advice. Seeking professional advice on legal matters is always advised)
“You’ll be hearing from my lawyer” “I’ll sue you!” “I think you should be consulting your lawyer about now!” Have you heard any of these yet? You will. It’s the battle cry of the losing party in disputes all over the internet. Legal threats are a common weapon used in an attempt to intimidate and bully people into doing what the threatener demands.
The reason this is so popular is simple: it often works. Most of us have no real knowledge of the law and have no idea what does or does not constitute a breach of it. When someone else seems confident of their knowledge, it’s easy to assume that they know what they’re talking about when we don’t. Depending on the situation, capitulation can simply seem like a simple solution to a stressful situation.
I’ve been threatened with legal action dozens of times, in a variety of situations by a variety of different people. None of them were credible, and I’ve never set foot in a court. I have, thus far, managed to avoid capitulation. The primary reasons why people threaten legal action are:
- To attempt to intimidate you
- To establish that they have notified you of the problem
With the first being vastly more prevalent.
What Kind of Legal Threats Are Sent?
There are any number of reasons someone might send a legal threat, and even more when you account for the spurious idiocy that people believe constitutes a breach of their rights. Some examples include:
- Defamation: Essentially that someone said something bad about them. If the source is credibly claiming something defamatory (eg: “John Smith is a habitual shoplifter) it may well be worth removing the content. If the content is just something the person doesn’t like (eg, “John Smith is an idiot), it’s less likely to be a problem.
- Copyright/trademark infringement: If you or one of your members has inadvertently (or deliberately) posted copyrighted material in your community, it’s a good idea to oblige with takedown requests. It can be tricky to tell which requests have legal grounding, and complying is generally the best PR move even if you technically aren’t obliged to do so.
- Personal injury - Either your community caused someone to drop their laptop on their foot, or (more likely) someone in your community posted something that caused actual personal harm to them. Sometimes these are frivolous (“Someone called me a douche and it caused mental scarring”), but if it seems even remotely serious, lawyer up.
- Removal of content that they posted: People sometimes post things in a community that they later regret. This could be an embarrassing problem they asked about, personal information they regret posting or perhaps simply foolish behaviour that they regret. If you have no particular reason not to delete this content, there’s no real reason not to oblige them. If it’s likely to seriously detract from your community (IE, the deletion of an account with thousands of posts on it), you can push back. People are generally not willing to push this point to actual legal action. In some jurisdictions, you may actually be obliged to conform to such requests. Check with a lawyer if you’re unsure.
- A nebulous violation of “free speech”: This is a common one. Someone who has had their post deleted, their account banned or has been told to obey the rules will claim that their first amendment rights have been breached. They’re wrong, of course. Your community is your property, and no one has a right to post on it without your consent. What they’re actually attempting to do is abridge your right to run your community as you choose. If they threaten to talk to a lawyer, advise them to do so. They’ll spend hundreds of dollars to be laughed at by a highly qualified three-piece suit.
A common theme among these is the idea that in many cases there’s no reason not to comply with the request. It’s up to you whether or not you want to batten down the hatches on various individual cases.
A final note: it’s generally a bad idea to respond to legal threats directly. If their threat didn’t come from an actual lawyer in a credible way, don’t respond at all. If you absolutely need to respond, do it through a lawyer. It’s entirely possible to cause yourself huge problems by saying the wrong thing in this scenario. Play it safe. Let the lawyers do the talking.