With the explosion of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and the like, it is easier than ever for people to vent their frustrations and anger about each other and companies. And those messages can spread through the Internet at a remarkable pace reaching thousands in a matter of seconds. This can be highly upsetting to someone disparaged by such a statement. However, not every utterance that someone takes offense to constitutes to a legally defamatory statement. We are all free to share our opinions, regardless of whether it disparages an individual or a business, and regardless of whether it actually reflects the truth. Indeed, this is a bedrock principal of the First Amendment. What we cannot do is make false and disparaging statements of fact about another. While the line between an actionable defamatory statement and negative opinion is often difficult to ascertain, two recent court decisions shine helpful light on what we can and cannot say about another.
In the first case, a disgruntled tenant in a Chicago apartment complex posted the following statement on her Twitter page (I guess the cool kids call this a "tweet"): "Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it's okay." Horizon Realty did not take kindly to the statement and sued the tenant for defamation. The tenant's attorney responded immediately by filing a motion to dismiss the case. The attorney argued that the tenant's statement were not verifiable facts, but instead reflected her opinion:. The attorney aptly summarized his argument as follows: "Even if [the tenant's] tweet were interpreted to mean Horizon realty thinks it's okay to sleep in a moldy apartment, the statement merely reflects what [the tenant] thinks 'Horizon realty' thinks." The court agreed and threw the case out holding "the tweet non-actionable as a matter of law" (OK, so it's not just the cool kids that call it a tweet).
In the second case, Courtney Love posted the following derogatory tweet (among others) about a fashion designer: "has a history of dealing cocaine, lost all custody of her child, assault and burglary." This does not appear to simply reflect Love's opinion, but instead disparaging statements of fact about the designer. Not surprisingly, the designer sued love for defamation. Love's lawyer also tried to have the suit dismissed, essentially arguing that Love's statement was in the public interest and should be protected because, as her lawyer put it, Love should "be allowed to speak out when one believes consumers are being ripped off." The court did not buy it and denied Love's motion while also holding that the designer was likely to prevail at trial. So the moral of the story, you can couch your derogatory statements as your opinion and be okay, but if you start attacking someone's character with negative statements of fact, you might find yourself on the wrong end of a court judgment.