It's time for the Popehat Signal — the call for pro bono assistance for a blogger threatened with frivolous and censorious litigation. This time the victim in need of help is Stephanie Yoder of www.twenty-somethingtravel.com. She needs your help to face a thoroughly bogus and repugnant threat by multi-level marketing scheme "WorldVentures."
WorldVentures: The Would-Be Censor
WorldVentures describes itself as "the world’s largest direct seller of curated group travel, with more than 120,000 Independent Representatives in over 24 countries and we are still growing." WorldVentures associates recruit other WorldVentures associates, and so on and so on, to sell allegedly well-priced vacations. It costs money — up front and per month — to become a WorldVentures salesperson, but if you recruit enough people, your fees are waived. Of course, if you want to go to one of the WorldVentures training events, or get extra business development materials, those cost more. If you go, you will be treated to slick, well-produced, somewhat creepy and cultish rah-rah speeches about how swell WorldVentures is and how it will let you find success.
Complaints are regarding misrepresentation of the promised savings on travel, slow or non delivery of promised refunds and dissatisfaction with customer service. Specifically, customers complain that paying the company fee and following the company business model does not provide promised savings as stated by company representatives. The company resolves complaints by offering refunds or refering to the agreement for explanation. However, customers complain that the refund was delayed or not received. Additionally, customers indicate that they have difficulty contacting the company.
Moreover World Ventures' own documents show that it's a ridiculously bad deal for the vast majority of their "sales associates." Their 2009 disclosures showed that 72.3% of their associates did not earn a commission, about 7.5% earned a mean of about $550, and less than one percent earned more. The median for all associates was a paltry $100. And that doesn't even take into account the associates' expenses. By 2012 the numbers were worse: more than 80% didn't earn commissions and the median income for commission-earners was $40.
On the other hand, there are plenty of blogs out there arguing that WorldVentures is not a scam. If you write a blog post questioning WorldVentures, you will very likely draw a crowd of very enthusiastic, very intense, somewhat off-putting WorldVenture supporters.
That's what happened to Stephanie Yoder.
Stephanie at Twenty-Something Travel: The Target Of Censorship
Stephanie Yoder writes at Twenty-Something Travel, a travel blog. Back in July 2013, after an unpleasant encounter with a WorldVentures marketeer, Stephanie wrote a post about the company entitled "WorldVentures: This Is NOT The Way To Travel The World." Stephanie described her experience with the marketeer, explained her research into WorldVentures, and offered her opinion about this and other multi-level marketing schemes. She did so with links and references to a story in the New York Observer, WorldVenture's own financial disclosure documents, and links to other commentary on the internet.
Two things happened to Stephanie as a result.
First, she got a flood of 248 comments both criticizing and angrily defending WorldVentures (and MLMs in general.)
Second, last week she got a legal threat from Texas attorney Shawn E. Tuma of Britton Tuma. I've uploaded the threat letter here. I hate to overuse the word "bumptious," but nothing else suits. Blustery? Blowhardish? Meh. Bumptious is le mote juste.
Mr. Tuma asserts that Stephanie has published "in graphical form, false, misleading, defamatory and disparaging statements about WorldVentures." Tellingly, Mr. Tuma does not specify a single, solitary false statement. Say the mantra with me: vagueness in legal threats is the hallmark of meritless thuggery.
Mr. Tuma asserts that the post is "misappropriating, misusing, and disparaging [sic] WorldVenture's intellectual property in violation of state and federal law." Once again, Mr. Tuma utterly fails to specify what property he means or how it is being infringed upon.
Finally Mr. Tuma asserts that Stephanie Yoder is "engaging in unfair competition and deceptive trade practices," because a travel blog is totally in market competition with a multilevel marketing scheme. Lawyer, please.
Mr. Tuma finishes with flourishes typical of meritless and malicious threat letters: a scary demand that Stephanie preserve documents, a statement that WorldVentures is not waiving any rights, and a statement that "this communication is without prejudice to any facts," which is totally true but not in the way I think he means it. Mr. Tuma's demand is also typical: one meeelyeeeon dollars. No wait. He demands that Stephanie not only take down her post, but "immediately cease and desist from publishing any further statements or information about WorldVentures in any form."
Ask yourself: why would a legitimate business demand that a post about it be taken down, but not be able to articulate what is wrong with the post? Why would a legitimate business see fit to demand that a blogger stop mentioning them at all? Should you trust such a company?
Tuma's and WorldVenture's claims are transparently bogus. First, Stephanie's post is an excellent example of a protected opinion based on disclosed facts. Guess what: you're allowed to say that you think WorldVentures is a scam and a shitty deal based on 72% of their associates not making money. Tuma's letter does not specify any specific false statements of fact — as any competent lawyer with a genuine claim would — because there aren't any. Second, WorldVenture's ambiguous IP claims are bogus. To the extent that Stephanie uses WorldVenture's name, it's classic nominative fair use. To the extent Stephanie uses a few pictures from WorldVenture's site to illustrate her point, it's classic fair use, just like it was when someone used a video to question the veracity of Ergun Caner or when a business made shirts critical of DHS and NSA.
But there's a difference between rights and realities. We have a system that too often allows bullying plaintiffs to censor speakers using the threat of meritless but ruinously expensive litigation.
There are three ways to deal with that.
One is for lawyers to step up to offer pro bono assistance in defense of free speech, as a dream team recently did in Texas in response to another Popehat Signal.
The second way is for those lawyers to fight for sanctions and attorney fees when censorious thugs like these file harassment suits — as pro bono lawyers just did in Texas. In addition, lawyers must make aggressive use of anti-SLAPP statutes, as they recently did in another recent Popehat Signal case. Texas, where WorldVentures is apparently based and from whence Mr. Tuma hurls his excremental threat, has a very strong anti-SLAPP statute.
You can all help with the third way. It's the Streisand Effect. When a company makes a frivolous, thuggish, vague threat like this, as many people as possible in as many places as possible should hear about it and read about what upset the company. Please do your part.
Lawyers, please consider helping Stephanie. Readers, please consider letting more people know about WorldVenture's threats. As always, potential pro bono attorneys or other helpers, please email me to connect with the victim. As always, you have my gratitude for standing up for free speech.