People accountable for online 'reviews'
One Oregon law is so far behind the times that it ignores the Internet as a place where defamation can occur. This week, however, the Oregon Court of Appeals opened the way for legal action against people posting negative and untrue online reviews of businesses.
In the newspaper business, we’re well acquainted with state laws on slander, libel and defamation.
Those laws provide significant protection for free speech and the rights of fair comment, extra latitude in writing about “public figures” and protection from punitive damages if a mistake is admitted openly. We carry libel insurance, but in my 40 years here we have never been required to pay damages for something published in this newspaper.
The state law on damages for defamation refers to statements “published or broadcast in a newspaper, magazine, other printed periodical, or by radio, television or motion pictures.” Statements published on the Internet, of course, can be equally defamatory, but the law hasn’t caught up with the challenges of online anonymity nor with the ever-changing Internet content that is more difficult to document than with print or broadcasts.
In this week’s decision, the plaintiff is a Eugene-area outdoor wedding venue. A California man, after attending a 2011 wedding at the site, posted a blistering review of the facility and services, prompting a $7,500 defamation lawsuit by an owner who said business nosedived after the comment was posted on Google Reviews. The man, said his attorney, was “simply expressing his opinion.”
People have come to believe they are unassailable when posting personal reviews on Google, Yelp, Trip-Advisor, Facebook, Twitter, Angie’s List or the thousands, perhaps millions, of online blogs or other web locations accepting reader comments.
Oregon law protects free speech in public forums, so a Lane County Circuit judge threw out this lawsuit. But the Court of Appeals panel concluded that the plaintiff should have the opportunity to prove that “factual statements” alleged in the man’s online post were untrue.
Truth always is a great defense in defamation lawsuits. When the truth is in question, protection for expressing opinions is an important element of the law. But untruths that cause damages and are not corrected after a demand for retraction are not protected – in print, over the air or online.
Lots of people will be watching this Oregon defamation case go forward. People should consider it before posting their next online review.
Jeb Bladine can be reached at email@example.com or 503-687-1223.