Defamatory Remarks and Opinions

As I was reading an article from the NY Times about the rising number of companies that are taking people to court over criticism posted online. One example mentioned in the article is about a towing company who sued for $750,000 worth of damages by a man whose car’s towed by the company even though he had a permit for the car. The company claimed that the permit was not visible. Out of frustration (and revenge?), the man then created a Facebook page for disliking the company (the company name was mentioned specifically), which quickly drew 800 fans.  He said he only just posted the facts.

So does an individual have a right to post this kind of information publicly online? Is this kind of information protected by free speech? Is this legally viewed as defamatory? I was curious, so I took a look at several definitions of defamation and related words (e.g. defamatory, defame, etc.). Note: I am no legal expert and do not offer any legal advice–this is just my curiosity.

This is what I gathered from the Oxford English Dictionary, Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedic Dictionary of International Law, and Wikipedia. Wikipedia had the most rounded definition:

Defamation—also called calumny, vilification, slander (for transitory statements), and libel (for written, broadcast, or otherwise published words)—is the communication of a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government, or nation a negative image. It is usually, but not always,[1] a requirement that this claim be false and that the publication is communicated to someone other than the person defamed (the claimant).

Basically, most defamation cases involve false claims, but not always.  They tends to be based on the account of something that is not true or did not happen.  If you make up something about an individual or a company that didn’t happen, you could be found liable for money damages–reputations are easily damaged & hard to repair.

So can you post your experiences online for others to read?  Is it legally permissible to post just the facts of an event?  Sometimes it might be, but in this age of technology it is hard to take back something you post online, especially once it becomes published publicly.  Common sense says keep your opinions to yourself.  However, sometimes customers are prompted for reviews and feedback similar to Amazon’s product review service.  In these cases, it should be okay to post your opinion.  The outfit that hosts the reviews (e.g. Amazon) would be liable for any money damages a company made by the review.  Hopefully, the reviewer tells the truth–one never knows!

Partially as an experiment (but also out of frustration), I posted a review of some poor customer service I received from a computer software company.  I didn’t expect anyone to read my post, especially someone from the “offending” company.  However, within a few days, I received a response through my blog from a company employee who provided advice & publicly apologized (I was very impressed with the response & how the employee took the time to address my needs even when she didn’t need to–hats of to this company for this proactive approach.).  I also received a comment on my blog from someone six months later who had a similar experience with this company.  This was another result that I wasn’t anticipating.

What I find interesting from the NY Times article is how the company and the individual settle out of court.  The individual took back his words and the company dropped the law suit.  I couldn’t tell if he removed his comments from Facebook, and deleted the Facebook page he created or turned it over to someone else.

Why not approach the company to resolve the differences off-line, assuming they are willing to listen?  Then let’s say that you post a true account on Facebook that ruins the business’ reputation and puts them out of business.  This was not your intent, but it is too late to take back your words.  The company employs several people and they need to find new jobs, and the owner of this business never knew anything of the happenings until it was too late.  How about if you were the owner of the business?  Does the shoe still fit?

The moral of this is to be thoughtful about what you post online.  Sure you can post what ever you want online, but it has consequences.  You may find that your words have a fair reaching effect, and may hold more negative consequences than you expect.

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About repplinger

John has served as a Reference Librarian at Willamette University since 2002. He is the liaison to the Science Departments, and is responsible for maintaining the collections related to the life & physical sciences. His research interests range over the entire spectrum of libraries and information sciences, but includes: - Google and its influence on information & society - The Internet's influence on information seeking & sharing behaviors - Trends of scholarly communication - Electronic learning environments - Traditional pedagogy - GIS use in academic libraries

Posted on June 1, 2010, in Consumerism, Privacy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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