Topic #5: Libel at Yelp

Below you will find a clear explanation of Libel providing a comprehensive understanding of the Tort. I would like to thank Law.com for their extensive resources, many of which I used to provide what follows.

What is Libel?

“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.

Libel vs. Slander?

Libel = written or broadcast defamation.

Slander = oral defamation

Defamation?

According to FindLaw.com, “defamation is an all-encompassing term that covers any statement that hurts someone’s reputation.

When is Someone Guilty of Libel?

An individual or entity is guilty of libel when their statement(s):

  • Resulted in obvious and foreseeable harm
  • Can be proved to have been false
  • Were made as a proclamation of fact rather than personal opinion

Under What Conditions can a Victim of Libel Recover?

If proof of malice exists, the defamed party can bring a lawsuit to recover for damage inflicted on their reputation.

The Issue

The online review site Yelp is contracting lobbyist in order to pressure Congress to pass legislation that’ll help the website curtail the influx of defamation lawsuits it’s been facing recently. One lawsuit in particular recently arose after Jane Perez, a Yelp customer in Virginia, wrote a review viciously criticizing the work of a contractor she had hired to work on her house. Click below to read her review:

The Review

Screen-Shot-2012-12-07-at-7.25.50-AM

In the post Ms. Perez accuses the contractor, Christopher Dietz, of failing to perform the duties of the job, robbery, and operating illegally without a license. Mr. Dietz, responded by filing an internet defamation lawsuit against Ms. Perez  to recover $750,000 in damages resulting from libel. Mr. Dietz has also requested a local court authorize a preliminary injunction preventing Ms. Perez from “writing similar reviews” online.

A court found that the claims made by Ms. Perez were in fact defamatory. However, Mr. Dietz was also found guilty of defamation after he posted comments on the post made by Ms. Perez.

Advances in technology have given rise to new and unforeseen communications mediums that pose increased risks for business’s. These include:

Throughout history, emerging mass media technologies have been received poorly and, in some cases, feared.  In a 2007 TED talk conference, Lawrence Lessig gave an example of how people believed the advent of the telephone would hurt society. Mr. Lessig mentioned a quote from the early 1900’s in which telephones were described as “infernal machines.”

The answer isn’t to be afraid or neglect the development of a proper and educated understanding of new technologies as they emerge. Rather, the answer is to embrace these new technologies identifying their costs and benefits to individuals, organizations, and society in general.

To avoid making libelous claims it’s important that individuals and businesses exercise appropriate ethical responsibility. According to Guth and Marsh’s chapter Ethics and Social Responsibility, “Ethics are the values that guide the ways we think and act… without values, we have no ethics. But unless we bring forth those qualities in our thoughts and actions, we still have no ethics. Ethics are active, not passive.”

Online websites such as Yelp and Angie’s List should employ some of The Essential Questions given by Louis W. Hodges to prevent future abuse of free speech on their websites. Doing so will promote ethical responsibility and conduct among their users. Users of these websites should be asked:

  1. Who are the stakeholders that could be affected by their comments?
  2. What are the predictable effects of their actions?
  3. What are the morally relevant facts of their reviews?

Libelous reviews can be avoided if users ask themselves the aforementioned three questions prior to making a post. It is very hard to impose strict government control on Yelp and attempts at doing so should be avoided. The government does not have a right to restrict the free flow of information and ideas on the internet unless such ideas result in defamation.

Allow me to present to you a hypothetical situation.

Situation

Jane Doe recently dined at Iggies, an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles. She didn’t like how her waiter smelled so when Jane got home she logged onto her yelp account and wrote:

Iggies is the worst restaurant in the city. They hire waiters who have poor hygiene and the restaurant fails to enforce legal sanitary requirements on its employees. Their food is poison and should be avoided at all costs. 

Such a claim would be libelous and grant remedy to Iggies for damage to reputation caused by defamation. However, if Jane had wrote:

Iggies is a horrible restaurant. My waiter smelled of onions and my appetite was instantly killed. Don’t go there!!

Nothing is wrong with the above post and therefore defamation doesn’t exist.

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