Monday, January 7, 2013

Liability for making Defamatory comments on Internet

Time Magazine   Jane Perez, a retired captain in the military from Fairfax County, VA, was not happy with her home contractor, so she wrote reviews on Yelp and Angie’s List explaining why. She said he had done a poor job on her renovations and billed her for work he did not perform — and that he may have stolen her jewelry. She warned readers: “Bottom line: do not put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor.”

The contractor, Christopher Dietz, filed a $750,000 defamation suit and got a judge to order Perez to rewrite the reviews. The Virginia Supreme Court recently reversed that decision, saying that reviews should not be censored — and that if they were defamatory, Dietz should focus on getting money damages.

The ruling is being hailed as an important victory for freedom of speech on the Internet, which it is. But it is also a reminder of the risks that come with being an online critic. Sites like Yelp! and Amazon give ordinary people the power to write reviews that have a major impact on other people’s reputations and livelihoods. But it also means that they can be held legally responsible if what they write is defamatory. [...]

Under federal law — 47 U.S.C. § 230, to be specific — websites like Yelp and Angie’s List are shielded from being sued for defamation, but the writers — people like Perez — are legally responsible for what they write and lawsuits can be filed against them. That may not be what a lot of people are thinking when they go on Angie’s List or Amazon to air grievances. In fact, Perez told the Washington Post that when she posted her reviews it never occurred to her that she might end up in court or on the hook for thousands of dollars in legal fees — not to mention the monetary damages. Dietz is suing for $750,000, and awards can go far higher than that. In 2006, a jury awarded a Florida woman $11.3 million in damages against a woman who made defamatory comments on an Internet message board.


  1. More importantly for us is the Torahdic approach to this issue. I would find it hard to believe that an open derogatory review could be permissible due to the Halachos of Lashon Hora. Whereas there are situations in which it is permissible to provide negative information about someone, a number of conditions are absolute. Among them are the necessity of the information being provided for To'eles. A post that is openly available to anyone, whether or not they may require the information, would appear to violate this condition.
    However, it would be interesting to hear how our Gedolim might relate to the fact that the Internet and appropriate forums allow the information to be disseminated to interested parties who might not otherwise be made aware of information that is for to'eles.
    In addition, the information must be provided without rancor. From the above post, it appears that this was not the case.
    As to monetary aspect, it appears that there is really no Halachic claim for compensation, because the monetary damages brought about my the defamatory post should be considered Grama and not Nezek. To my knowledge, the only place where there are monetary damages for defamation are in a case of Motzi Shem Ra. However, this is considered a fine and cannot be learned from, as is clear from the Gemara in Makos.
    So to sum it up, the review should never have been posted, and the suit should never have been filed. Two wrongs do not make a right!

  2. Perhaps the main issue was the accusation of stolen jewelry. Complaining about a job poorly done or not at all would be much harder to challenge. After all, she presumably has the quote, the details of what the contractor promised, etc.

  3. The most likely population freely to post their feelings online are teenaged students, and with the class size ratio being what it is, it is only inevitable that every teacher will attract wantonly defamatory comments. For this reason, some States have seen fit to legislate special protections for teachers, punishing students who go outside their bureaucratic recourse to publicly to offer personal degradations of their teachers.


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