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Consumer wins free-speech case against nursery

By The Associated Press
03.08.04

CANTON, Mich. — A Canton woman violated no laws when she used the name of an area nursery for a Web site on which she complained about that firm, an appeals court said in a ruling hailed by some as a victory for consumers rights.

In the ruling, Lucas v. Grosse on March 5, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld a lower court's ruling that Michelle Grosse was not acting in bad faith when she created the Web site www.lucasnursery.com to complain about Lucas Nursery and Landscaping Inc. of Canton.

Grosse had paid Lucas Nursery $8,000 in March 2000 to fix a dip in her back yard, lay sod and build a retaining wall. Grosse said the job was poorly done and she had to pay another firm $5,400 to fix the problems.

In August 2000, three months after trying to get Lucas Nursery to acknowledge its mistakes, Grosse bought the Web address for $35, posted pictures of her yard and added a warning to other consumers to avoid doing business with the nursery.

The nursery sued, claiming that Grosse's use of the company's name made her a cybersquatter.

The case was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in Detroit in April. The court said Grosse was neither acting in bad faith nor trying to make a profit from the site.

The nursery appealed. But the 6th Circuit Court upheld the lower court's argument and added that Grosse never offered to sell the Web site to the nursery.

"I would probably do it again," Grosse told the Detroit Free Press for a March 6 story. "I didn't like getting stepped on by them and I wanted to warn people, and I did." Grosse took the site down two years ago.

Kevin Bennett, a Plymouth attorney who represented Lucas Nursery, said he was disappointed.

"Instead of pursuing proper legal remedies that are available to everyone who actually has gotten the short end of the stick, Michelle Grosse took it upon herself to steal the Lucas name and use it in an attempt to tarnish the good will that the Lucas family name has built up over 27 years in the landscaping business," he said.

Consumer rights groups said the ruling bolsters the fight to stop corporations from stifling free speech on the Internet.

"This is a very important case," said Paul Levy, staff attorney with the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. "This is a mainstream circuit court that said using the Internet and the name of the company to criticize the company is perfectly legitimate."

But Levy said consumers who undertake similar efforts should explain at the top of the Web page that the site is not sanctioned by the company and should also include a link to the firm's own Web page. The site also should not be used to sell anything, he said.


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