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Judge allows critic to name car dealership on Web site

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  1. Prior Restraint

    NMU         ALABAMA         Prior Restraints         Jul 26, 2002    

Judge allows critic to name car dealership on Web site

  • A federal judge lifted his preliminary injunction ordering a Web site owner to remove a car dealership’s name from the site, which criticized the dealership’s business practices.

A federal judge lifted a preliminary injunction on July 16 that had kept a dissatisfied customer from using a car dealership’s name on his Web pages, after he created the site to criticize the dealer’s business practices.

Alabama resident Thomas Ballock created a Web site called to voice criticism and dissatisfaction with the Hoover-based car dealership’s business practices. Crown Pontiac-Nissan claimed that Ballock’s site infringed its trademarks, even though the dealer had not registered its name.

Crown Pontiac-Nissan requested and obtained a preliminary injunction from Judge U.W. Clemons in U.S. District Court in Birmingham to have its name removed from the site. Ballock then created a new Web site called to criticize the business in question, but left the dealer’s name off of the site.

The Public Citizen Litigation Group appeared at a hearing on behalf of Ballock and made a motion to lift the injunction, which Judge Clemons granted in its entirety on July 16.

Free speech advocates argued that the injunction had been a sweeping prior restraint restriction of First Amendment rights of consumer commentary.

“If Crown’s position in this case were correct, then consumers are prohibited from criticizing businesses on the Internet,” said Amanda Frost, Ballock’s attorney from the Public Citizen Litigation Group. “That result would clearly violate consumers’ First Amendment rights.”

Crown Pontiac-Nissan argued that having the business’ name on Ballock’s page created confusion and diverted customers away from its business, causing irreparable economic harm.

Ballock created the original site in February after a dispute over payment for a sunroof Crown Pontiac-Nissan installed in his new car. He also posted notices proclaiming, “I shall not recommend doing business with Crown Pontiac-Nissan to anybody, ” but added disclaimers saying that the site was not the official Web site of the car dealership.

However, an attorney for Crown Pontiac-Nissan sent Ballock a “cease and desist” letter, citing infringement of federal trademark laws, economic harm, defamation, extortion and diversion of customers from Crown’s true Web site.

After the injunction was lifted, Ballock resumed the use of the car-dealership’s name on his original site and featured it rather prominently. He posted “Why I won’t recommend Crown Nissan (Crown-Pontiac Nissan) of Hoover, Alabama” at the top of the Web page.

(Crown Pontiac-Nissan v. Ballock) MFS

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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