Are online reviews free speech or cyberbullying? Court dives into legal fight
A negative online review of a wedding venue has emerged as a test case of whether Oregons anti-defamation law can be invoked by businesses against consumers commenting on the Internet.
The Oregon Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday, May 12, in the case, which has drawn attention from a coalition of news organizations because of its implications for free expression in the Internet age.
It is critical that consumers be able to post reviews without fear that their negative opinions and frequent hyperbole will result in a lawsuit and a potentially staggering amount of financial penalties, said Derek Green, a Portland lawyer who represents the coalition, when he urged the court last fall to take the case.
But the owner of the wedding venue says she lost business as the result of the negative comments, although it has recovered, and wants her day in court to prove damages.
While we cherish rights the right to expression and the right to assembly we should not throw stones at others and we do not damage property, Carol Neumann said after the justices heard the case. We hope to bring awareness.
The justices have no deadline, but typically release decisions within six to 12 months after arguments.
'Bedbugs are not that funny'
The case stems from the aftermath of a 2011 wedding at Dancing Deer Mountain, the venue that Carol and Tim Neumann operate near Junction City, northwest of Eugene.
Christopher Liles, a guest from California at the wedding, wrote on Google Reviews a couple of days later that it was the worst experience of my life.
Of the venue, he described it as a tool shed that was painted pretty, but a tool shed all the same.
Neumann then sued for defamation and $7,500 in damages.
Judge Charles Carson dismissed the lawsuit from Lane County Circuit Court. Liles invoked a special motion that Oregon lawmakers approved in 2001 to ward off lawsuits intended to silence critics in public proceedings, otherwise known as the anti-SLAPP law. Twenty-six states have such laws.
But in 2014, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed that ruling and reinstated part of the lawsuit on grounds that Liles words could be construed as defamatory to the business.
Liles, represented by Portland lawyer Linda Williams, then asked for a review by the Supreme Court.
Its hard to tell with these legal proceedings what is going on, said Liles, who also was present for Tuesdays arguments. But I have faith in the justice system.
With 25,000 weddings annually in Oregon, and with an obvious public forum on the Internet to comment on wedding venues, Liles was engaged in conduct furthering a constitutional right of free speech, Williams told the justices.
Justice Rives Kistler asked if an online commenter complained about bedbugs in a hotel and that every room had bedbugs even when they did not would that be actionable?
Sure, Williams replied unless the context made clear that the commenter was clearly exaggerating in the online posting.
Bedbugs are not that funny, Kistler replied.
Williams said that under U.S. Supreme Court decisions going back to 1964, the legal burden is on the plaintiff to show that the commenter engaged in actual malice, defined as reckless disregard of the truth.
Its a tough standard to meet, Williams said.
Green argued on behalf of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, Oregon Association of Broadcasters, Oregon Public Broadcasting; Western Communications, the parent company of the Bend Bulletin and other newspapers, and the parent companies of The Oregonian, Willamette Week and Portland television station KPTV.
Tuesdays Supreme Court proceeding was unusual in one respect: No lawyer argued on Neumanns behalf, although Steven Baldwin of Eugene did so at the Court of Appeals.
Neumann said she could not afford representation at the Supreme Court, but she hoped that the written record would persuade the justices to uphold the earlier decision.
She likened her case to cyberbullying in that the targets her business in one, youths in the other were at a disadvantage in fending off negative comments that remain online. She said another small-business owner, also the target of online harassment, encouraged her and her husband to go forward with their lawsuit.
It was not easy for us, and it was not because we could afford it, Neumann said after the proceeding. It was because it was the right thing to do and it would help bring awareness to these issues.
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