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'Web' lawsuits: Old legal strategy reborn

NEW YORK, May 31 (UPI) -- People taking to the Internet to air grievances and complaints about businesses may find themselves targeted by defamation lawsuits, U.S. legal experts say.

The exploding popularity of Web sites like Facebook and Twitter has given rise to cases of businesses suing people for posting critical comments online, The New York Times reported Monday.

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Some first amendment lawyers criticize such lawsuits, saying they're just the latest version of a legal maneuver called a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or Slapp.

The term traditionally meant meritless defamation suits filed by officials or business against citizens who criticized them, the Times said.

Those filing such suits don't always expect to succeed -- in fact, most such suits fail -- but use them to intimidate critics who often back down from the threat of a long, expensive court fight.

Many states have anti-Slapp laws, and Congress is looking at legislation to make it harder to file such suits, the Times said.

With people going online with their criticisms and attacks and businesses responding with lawsuits, the debate over Slapps has moved to the Web.

"We are beyond the low-tech era of people getting Slapped because of letters they wrote to politicians or testimony they gave at a city council meeting," George W. Pring, a University of Denver law professor, says.

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