Court Ruling Seems to Overlook the Online Fact v. Opinion Question

From contributing blogger John S. Merculief II –

Recently I posted about Chaker v. Mateo, No. D058753, 2012 WL4711885 (Cal. Ct. App. Oct. 4, 2012). It dealt a strong victory for free speech rights, but in my opinion, the California appellate court turned something of a blind eye to the issue of the relative legitimacy of internet postings.

The court reached its decision largely on the basis that the online statements at issue were incapable of being defamatory because they were merely nonactionable opinions. In doing so, however, I think the courts are overlooking the reality that many users of such internet forums actually treat postings they read as fact.

The case principally involved the online postings of Wendy Mateo regarding her daughter Nicole’s ex-husband, Darren Chaker. Here are the key facts:

  1. Nicole Mateo and Chaker had a contentious custody battle over their child.
  2. Wendy Mateo posted degrading comments about Chaker in online forums.
  3. Chaker sued for defamation.
  4. Wendy Mateo filed an anti-SLAPP suit and won.
  5. The appellate court affirmed that she was merely exercising her First Amendment free speech rights in the matter.

The Chaker court points out that “the context in which the statements are made” is an extremely important aspect of the “totality of the circumstances” examination of whether a statement is actionable. “This contextual analysis demands that the courts look at the nature and full content of the audience to whom the publication was directed.”

The two online sites where Wendy Mateo posted her comments were:

  • Ripoff Report, which describes itself as “a worldwide consumer reporting Web site and publication, by consumers, for consumers, to file and document complaints about companies or individuals.”
  • A social networking site into which Chaker had inserted himself by posting a professional profile.

In arriving at its findings, the court acknowledges and openly joins a trend I see as sad and disturbing: “In determining statements are nonactionable opinions, a number of recent cases have relied heavily on the fact that statements were made in Internet forums.”

By giving credence to the idea that internet forums generally yield nonactionable opinions, I think the courts are overlooking the reality that many users of such forums actually treat postings they read as fact.

It is true that, around the watercooler, someone making a claim he knows to be unsupported by fact, will add, “I saw it on the internet, so it must be true,” as a sarcastic verbal signal that he knows his point is a weak one – even if he is not willing to yield it.

But the thing is, for many people, “I saw it on the internet, so it must be true” is not a sarcastic expression, but rather words to live by.

Does that make such a user legally “unreasonable”? That appears to be the judgment in recent cases. But if courts truly are to look at the “nature … of the audience to whom the publication was directed,” perhaps a better way to articulate the standard is “reasonable when viewed from the perspective of a typical user of an internet forum.”

To be sure, the Chaker court does not actually use the term “reasonable person” nor even the word “reasonable” in its roughly 10-page opinion. But I believe what it’s saying, in joining the internet-forum-as-opinion trend, is that a reasonable person would not go to those sites expecting facts.

And I don’t know whether that makes sense, given actual usage behaviors regarding visitors to internet forums.

Internet forums admittedly are often places for “outrageous claims” where some (the Chaker court says “most”) “visitors are completely aware of the unreliable nature of these posts.” And that seems to tilt the needle toward unactionable opinion.

But if a goodly number of those visitors treats those same claims as hard, verified (or at least verifiable) fact, doesn’t that tilt the needle into the realm of actionable statement of fact?

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.