Simpler Freedom of Speech
An Oregon man wanted to tell the world he had attended a wedding two days before at a place called Dancing Deer Mountain, and if you were looking for a location to get married, this was not the place. It had been a "disaster." Christopher Liles wanted to express himself, as many folks do, by posting a negative review on the Internet. It may cost him.
Posting is so easy. You think you can say whatever you want on the Internet. Think again.
People reviewed negatively are fighting back, using the law: merchants, restaurants, contractors, physicians, yoga teachers and others -- among them, Carol Neumann and her husband, the owners of Dancing Deer Mountain.
It sounds pleasant enough, like a scene from a Disney movie. But Liles wasn't enchanted. Here's his post:
"Disaster!!!!! Find a different wedding venue."
"There are many other great places to get married, this is not that place! The worst wedding experience of my life! The location is beautiful the problem is the owners. Carol (female owner) is two faced, crooked, and was rude to multiple guests. I was only happy with one thing: it was a beautiful wedding, when it wasn't raining and Carol and Tim stayed away. The owners did not make the rules clear to the people helping with set up even when they saw something they didn't like they waited until the day of the wedding to bring it up. They also changed the rules as they saw fit. We were told we had to leave at 9pm, but at 8:15 they started telling the guests that they had to leave immediately. The 'bridal suite' was a tool shed that was painted pretty, but a shed all the same. In my opinion She will find a why [sic] to keep your $500 deposit, and will try to make you pay even more."
Doesn't Liles have a right to speak out? Well, as the first issue of this blog told you, "Not always." Free expression is restricted by the government in many ways, despite what the First Amendment says. One of those ways is by passing laws giving a person harmed by claimed lies the right to go after your money in court.
And that's what Carol Neumann did. She sued Liles for $7,500, claiming Dancing Deer's business dropped off severely after the post. So far she has fought off Liles' attempts to dismiss her case. Neumann and other witnesses say that some of Liles' statements are false so it is headed for a trial.
But Neumann can't be compensated for everything Liles said. Can you figure out which statements above are claims the Oregon court says she can sue on and which she can't?
Don't be ashamed if you can't. Liles' rant is a great example of court cases all over the country deciding whether a person's statements are "opinion" or "factual statements."
- If they are opinion, the law protects our right to express them. The law can't punish you for opinions, evil or crazy as they might be.
- But if your statements are facts, you're fair game for a person who says you're lying and your lies hurt them.
You ask yourself, "How do I know an opinion when I read it?" As lawyers say, "It's complicated." The question keeps lawyers all over the country occupied for many hours a year. Don't think you'll find the definitive answer here. It depends on the facts and circumstances in a case, people don't agree on the answer most of the time and, most importantly, any state or judge may come up with a different result from the state next door or another judge down the hall. And... it's complicated. But some guidelines are clear.
If someone can't prove something either true or false, then it's an opinion. My meal was too cold is an opinion. He broke my rear molar is not. A Wal-Mart was called "trashy." The court said "trashy" could be interpreted many ways. So the person who said it was safe. Another person stated that a painter had "f***** up the paint job." No precise meaning there, so it was safe. People were called the "biggest crooks on the planet," others "boobs, losers and crooks"; the courts said these statements were the kind of extreme speech or juvenile name-calling that readers understand as "exaggerated rhetoric," roughly speaking, hot-air. Readers wouldn't believe the speakers really meant the literal words and they couldn't be proved true or false. (How do you prove someone is a boob or a loser or the biggest crook on the planet?) Those posters were safe. But in California, a Yelp review that accused the poster's landlord of "abhorrent behavior that (likely) contributed to the death of three tenants" was not OK because they were "facts." A court said that just because it's on the Internet, people don't assume it's just loose talk or raving. Courts can "... dispense quickly with defamation claims arising from true rants and raves, [but] they do not preclude the courts from taking serious Internet speech seriously."
Tacking on "IMHO" (in my humble opinion) or a similar phrase won't protect you. If Susan says, "In my opinion John Jones is a liar," the reader believes she knows facts proving Jones lied. If she doesn't also tell the reader those facts, what she said is considered a fact, even if she said it was only her opinion. Sooner or later, she must prove her statement was founded on evidence. Once she does that, they better be correct. If she says, "In my opinion Mayor Jones shows his abysmal ignorance by accepting the teachings of Marx and Lenin," she's probably safe if he actually did accept those teachings.
Liles did not protect himself. Most of us don't. The Internet makes it easy to spout off, so we just type whatever we're feeling and get it off our chest. That'll teach 'em!
And as for Dancing Deer Mountain? The appellate court two weeks ago decided that Neumann could go ahead with her case despite freedom of speech, because some things that Liles said were not opinion. Why? Although the court said that "some" of what Liles said was protected opinion, its only example was "The worst wedding experience of my life!" Yep, can't be proved, so it's an opinion.
I see other candidates: "there are ... great places to get married, this is not that place"; "I was only happy with one thing"; and how in the world can words like "two faced" and "rude" be considered anything but opinion?
The court said Neumann could go forward on her claims based on the whole post including, these statements: "[t]he owners did not make the rules clear"; "when they saw something they didn't like they waited until the day of the wedding to bring it up"; "[w]e were told we had to leave at 9pm, but at 8:15 they started telling the guests that they had to leave immediately"; and "[t]he 'bridal suite' was a tool shed that was painted pretty, but a shed all the same").
I told you it was complicated. Carper beware!
This article is not intended, nor should it be used, as a substitute for specific legal advice or opinions since legal counsel may only be given in response to inquiries regarding particular factual and legal situations.