When does a bad review constitute defamation?

Online Reviews of Wedding Vendors: Defamation or Free Speech?

“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 guest. 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 to keep your $500 deposit, and will try to make you pay even more.”

Dancing Deer Mountain has 11 Google reviews.  Nine of the reviews rate the respected Oregon wedding venue 5 stars.  Two of them, including the one above, rated the venue 1 star.  Carol Neumann, the owner, said business plummeted following the review by Christopher Liles, who had attended a wedding at Dancing Deer Mountain in 2011.  Neumann responded by suing Liles for defamation, requesting $7,500 in damages.  The trial court dismissed the case.

Defamation Defense: Anti-SLAPP

Oregon has an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law designed to protect speech in a public forum, including websites like Yelp, Angie’s List, and Trip Advisor.  Lawmakers intended for the statute prevent corporations with deep pockets from filing meritless lawsuits to chill public discussion.  In addition to Oregon, 27 other states, Washington D.C. and Guam have an anti-SLAPP law with California’s statute being the oldest. Unfortunately, differences between the statutes, as well as what kind of speech each statute actually protects, has caused a great deal of confusion for the courts.  And while the anti-SLAPP laws protect individuals against lawsuits by massive corporations, they can also prevent small businesses from protecting themselves against malicious, anonymous internet posters.

The Oregon law allows the court to dismiss a defamation claim in the early stages of litigation if an oral or written statement was made in a place open to the public and in connection with an issue of public interest OR if it was a constitutional exercise of free speech in connection with a public issue.  The trial court held that Liles was exercising a constitutional free speech right.  In April 2013, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned the trial court and said the lawsuit should continue because Neumann demonstrated that the lawsuit wasn’t meritless.

How Is the Wedding Professional’s Claim Presented?

To win a defamation claim, a plaintiff must show the publication of an untrue statement that tends to lower the reputation of the subject in the community (read more about Wedding Vendor Defamation here). Here, Neumann will have to show that Liles’s statements – “the ‘bridal suite’ was a tool shed that was painted pretty, but a shed all the same” – is false.  Because it was an internet post, it was published by Liles for anyone to view.  And Neumann will have to demonstrate she lost business because of the damage to her reputation.

Further, statements of opinion can’t be defamatory, but the opinion can’t imply facts.  For instance, whether a student-athlete regarded hockey as a priority is pure opinion.  But, where a TSA agent reported that a man needed to be removed from a plane due to his mental status implied a fact that could be proven.

Liles argued that his Google review was hyperbole and opinion.  The Court of Appeals said that a jury could think differently about much of his post.  Statements like, “the owners did not make the rules clear,” and “we were told we had to leave at 9pm, but at 8:15 they started telling the guests that they had to leave immediately,” could be facts that seriously damage Neumann’s reputation.

Now we’ll see what a jury will think.