Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Free Speech: A Tenant's Right

On May 12, 2009, a single female Chicago tenant tweeted to a friend:

"You should just come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it's okay."

The tenant's former landlord, a giant realty company, is suing its former tenant USD$50,000 over a tweet of less than 140 characters (the tweet quoted above). If a tenant wants to tell twenty people about a mold problem that the landlord hasn't fixed then why, in the name of "free speech" shouldn't she be able to do so without punishment? The idea that a tenant has the power to complain is a basic American right protected by the First Amendment which says:

"The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is the part of the United States Bill of Rights that expressly prohibits the United States Congress...that ...infringe the freedom of speech..."

A realty company should focus on action and reputation, not litigation because,

A good reputation is more valuable than money.

Publilius Syrus (~100 BC), Maxims

What gives a powerful landlord the right to squelch free speech? What kind of reputation does this realty company want? As a very aggressive one operating throughout the "Chicagoland area" as it says. Horizon Group Management's Jeffrey Michael makes this shockingly arrogant assertion:

“We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization.”

It claims in a defensive letter that a single, young female tenant is trying to "manipulate the controversial RLTO" Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance law for her benefit. Like she's expecting quadrillions.

It also claims to have "acted to protect their a public forum". With millions of tweets going unnoticed each day, a single tweet is just slightly more public and unusual than a person talking on a cellphone. The company evidently snooped through tweets like prowlers to have checked them for self-references!

"Resident Referral Program"

This case sounds like a frivolous complaint to me, and I hope the judge dismisses it as such. I know a little about renting out (being a landlady) and if a tenant has a complaint it needs to be fixed. I believe I am fair and even-handed and fix complaints as they arise. I have no sympathy with powerful landlords who even think to squelch a tenant's right to free speech. Absolutely none. It is better for landlords to champion honesty and free speech than to create a "Resident Referral Program", a sort of noisy internal public relations stunt that benefits very few if any. Who will want to make use of it? Is this propensity to sue the reason they need one?

William Shakespeare (Othello, Act 3, Sc 3)

He that filches from me my good name

Robs me of that which not enriches him

And makes me poor indeed.

Doubtless, the amount of money isn't that large in the grand scheme for the realty company, it's the principle of the complaint that's important.

For the victim, this single tenant, it's probably a considerable problem, given the sizable sum and the magnitude of harm to her name. It's unfair of a company like that to take advantage of its power to harm the credit prospects of one tenant. It's so heavy-handed, even if they did as they claim, and fixed up the mold problem. How does she feel? What about her life and reputation? She's moved away and on with her life. Good for her.

That company deserves all the tough scrutiny it's getting. I keep hearing anecdotes about the psychological abuses of large American realty companies on their tenants. It is my hope that their honesty and truthfulness will improve.

After all, landlords and big realty companies with nothing to hide have nothing to fear.

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