Does a Negative Online Review Constitute Libel?

Stating your opinion online could now constitute libel, if a group of businesses has its way. Several companies are filing lawsuits over online reviews saying negative things about their services. A report in today’s Sun Sentinel describes two such cases moving through the courts right now.

Legal Action

The first is from a Pembroke Pines resort whose guest wrote a review describing the hotel as “filthy and bug-infested.” The second, from a South Florida cosmetic surgery clinic, is over a Web review warning people to “avoid [it] like the plague.” Both companies are suing for libel.

The idea of suing someone for expressing a negative opinion about a company online isn’t new, though it does appear to be growing rapidly in popularity. Just last month, an eBay seller from the U.K. sued a guy who left negative feedback on his account after buying a cell phone from him. The guy said the phone he received was not the model listed and wasn’t in the “good condition” that had been claimed. His “malicious” feedback? “Item was scratched, chipped and not the model advertised.”

A Minor Oversight

I think the lawsuit-happy segment of our society — encouraged no doubt by the instant publication nature of the Internet — has forgotten one crucial thing: Expressing an opinion, at least in the nations under question here, is not a crime. It’s a protected right. The condensed legal definition of libel (note bolded section):

to publish in print (including pictures), writing or broadcast through radio, television or film, an untruth about another which will do harm to that person or his/her reputation, by tending to bring the target into ridicule, hatred, scorn or contempt of others…. Publication need only be to one person, but it must be a statement which claims to be fact, and is not clearly identified as an opinion.

Libel 101

It seems safe to say that most user review forums, as well as eBay’s feedback sections, are clearly identified as opinion by their very titles alone. I don’t think any of these users had claimed their reviews were anything but opinion. That, you corporate clowns, is not libel. Moreover, can these companies prove the statements made in the reviews are false? Even if they weren’t designated as opinion, they’d be protected by the facet of libel’s definition that states:

That which is name-calling, hyperbole, or, however characterized, cannot be proven true or false, cannot be the subject of a libel or slander claim.

The Final Word

We can only hope these frivolous suits will be knocked down before they begin. If these companies get their way even once, the very protection that gives us the right to speak our minds, whether online or in person, will be in jeopardy.

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