Re­tal­i­a­tion or free speech?

Man to fight fed­eral charges with First Amend­ment de­fense

The Dallas Morning News - - FRONT PAGE - By KEVIN KRAUSE Staff Writer kkrause@dal­las­

No­body who’s in busi­ness likes bad on­line re­views. But one Dal­las com­pany got a North Texas man thrown in jail for say­ing neg­a­tive things about it on a blog.

And a jury will de­cide if it’s a mat­ter of free speech or a crime.

Wil­liam Lau­rence Stan­ley was in­dicted on Dec. 6 in fed­eral court in Dal­las, ac­cused of 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 in 2015 of ex­tort­ing the com­pany. Stan­ley had threat­ened to ruin GE’s rep­u­ta­tion by flood­ing the in­ter­net with false and neg­a­tive in­for­ma­tion un­less it paid him about $29,500.

He’s now charged with re­tal­i­a­tion.

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 the com­pany com­plained to the FBI about the on­line re­views.

The com­pany says the posts have al­ready cost it about $75,000 in lost sales, and that it could po­ten­tially lose an ad­di­tional $50,000 per day, ac­cord­ing to an FBI com­plaint.

Gen­er­a­tional Equity of­fi­cials could not be reached for com­ment.

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.

But not all on­line com­ments are pro­tected by the Con­sti­tu­tion. Le­gal ex­perts say it comes down to whether state­ments are based on opinion or stated as fact. The in­dict­ment says Stan­ley posted “false and deroga­tory com­ments and re­views on­line” about Gen­er­a­tional Equity in re­tal­i­a­tion for the com­pany re­port­ing a crime to fed­eral au­thor­i­ties.

One of the things Stan­ley wrote was that Gen­er­a­tional Equity paid him for “black hat SEO work” against some of its com­peti­tors, ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint. He says the com­pany is en­gag­ing in il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties that he is try­ing to ex­pose.

“I have no re­grets about the blog, and I feel vin­di­cated that I was able to tell the truth, fi­nally,” Stan­ley said.

His trial is sched­uled for Fe­bru­ary.

Rep­u­ta­tion at stake

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.”

Stan­ley be­gan send­ing threat­en­ing emails to the firm 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 said that Gen­er­a­tional Equity owed him the money for his ser­vices and that he was try­ing to col­lect it.

Stan­ley, a for­mer Texas res­i­dent who has been liv­ing in Ro­ma­nia, was first ar­rested in 2014 — for the ex­tor­tion charge — at Ge­orge Bush In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal Air­port in Hous­ton, where he ar­rived on a flight from Europe.

He pleaded guilty in 2015 to ex­tor­tion and re­ceived three years and one month in prison, in ad­di­tion to three months of pro­ba­tion fol­low­ing his re­lease.

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.

He was trans­ferred to the half­way house in Hous­ton last year after be­ing re­leased from prison. The fol­low­ing month, in Septem­ber, he was placed on home con­fine­ment.

Two weeks after that, Stan­ley posted a neg­a­tive re­view of Gen­er­a­tional Equity on Yelp, the FBI said. The re­view linked to a blog that had more neg­a­tive in­for­ma­tion about the com­pany, an FBI com­plaint said.

“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.

Fed­eral au­thor­i­ties said Stan­ley con­tin­ued to post neg­a­tive on­line re­views while in the half­way house us­ing a smart­phone. When the chief of se­cu­rity at the fa­cil­ity con­fis­cated the phone, Stan­ley told him: “They owe me some money. I didn’t do any­thing wrong,” ac­cord­ing to the FBI com­plaint.

Stan­ley was in­dicted Dec. 6 on the re­tal­i­a­tion charge and has pleaded not guilty.

Fact or opinion?

The fed­eral law cited in Stan­ley’s in­dict­ment crim­i­nal­izes re­tal­i­a­tion against a “wit­ness, vic­tim or an in­for­mant who pro­vides truth­ful in­for­ma­tion to a law en­force­ment of­fi­cer about the com­mis­sion or pos­si­ble com­mis­sion of a fed­eral crime.”

But Stan­ley said Gen­er­a­tional Equity lied to the FBI and that the truth — as well as the Con­sti­tu­tion — is on his side.

His lawyer, a fed­eral pub­lic de­fender, could not be reached for com­ment. But le­gal ex­perts say on­line com­ments are not al­ways legally pro­tected.

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.

Some­one could safely post, for ex­am­ple, that their lawyer is a “clown or buf­foon,” he said. But say­ing the lawyer is un­li­censed, neg­li­gent or care­less could re­sult in a law­suit, Paul­son said.

Stan­ley said his posts about Gen­er­a­tional Equity can be sup­ported by facts.

“They are just ha­rass­ing me with this and vi­o­lat­ing my right to free speech,” he said.

WIL­LIAM LAU­RENCE STAN­LEY has served time for ex­tor­tion.

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