“That’s Slanderous!” It’s a common quip read on websites around the world. From TWOP to Reddit, folks have been playing the defamation card since our species figured out how to mold a series of zeros and ones into instant communication. And now, thanks to technological advancements, even non-sentient entities are being sued for defamation. Yes ladies and gents, we are living in the first “Zombie Defamation” era.
First Things First: 9 Times Out of 10 Internet Defamation Is Not Slander
Before we get into the concept of search engine defamation, we need to clarify the difference between slander and libel. By definition, a written comment on a website cannot be “slanderous.” Libelous? Yes. Slanderous? No. Why? Because slander is spoken defamation and libel is written defamation. Now, if someone posts a video online, and in it they speak a false statement of fact, then that would be considered slanderous.
When Non-Sentient Beings Defame, Who Pays?
The rise of the Internet has meant the rise of the search engine spiders. Like the Imperial Army, search engine spiders multiple daily, and in many ways the non-human buggers actually play a significant role in our lives; they’re the entities that provide the answers to our search queries, and as such impact our choices and help to mold our opinions. Controlled by exacting algorithms, search engine spiders hold a lot more power than we give them credit.
Take for example the auto-complete functionality on search engines like Google. Once you start typing, it starts suggesting options – and oftentimes those options are not exactly flattering. As a result, people have started suing the company for defamation over the suggestions their auto-complete algorithm offers up. And unfortunately for the search engine, these auto-complete defamation claimants seem to be winning.
Several Search Engine Defamation Lawsuits Are Being Heard By Courts Around The World – Google Figures In All
Recently, an Australian citizen, Michael Trkulja, won a defamation lawsuit against Yahoo! and Google over the two search engines’ auto-complete functionality. Both services displayed photos of Trkulja, along with the name of a criminal who shot him, when his name is searched. Captions on the photos also insinuated that a hit man was hired in the attack, which Trkulja argued put him in harm’s way. And the courts agreed. So far, Trkulja has been awarded several hundred thousand dollars from both Yahoo! and Google.
In Japan, a man who may or may not have a criminal past is suing Google for auto-complete defamation. When his name is searched, words associated with criminal happenings appear. He’s arguing that this has prevented him from finding work, and therefore he’s suing for defamation.
A German politician’s wife, Bettina Wulff, is also suing Google for auto-complete defamation, over suggestions that pop up under her name having to do with prostitution and other illicit things.
Are you looking for an online libel attorney? If you answered “yes” to that question, contact the Kelly / Warner law firm. We have a dedicated Internet defamation legal team, are an AV-rated firm, and have successfully helped many businesses and individuals with their defamation legal needs. Get in touch today.
It’s always good idea for online business owners to stay abreast of international Internet laws for two reasons: (1) If customers in another country can access and interact with your site, there’s a strong possibility your site is subject to laws in said user’s jurisdiction; and (2) what’s happening elsewhere could have an impact on future United States’ Internet law legislation.
So, let’s take a little trip across the pond to the United Kingdom, home-base of the Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA). The NLA grants copyright licenses to newspapers for a fee, which allows service subscribers to reprint news articles. The NLA decided to pursue a test case with Meltwater News, an online news outlet, which opted not to pay NLA’s licensing fee. The lawsuit seeks to bar them from linking to news stories posted on the Internet by print publications.
The case between NLA and Meltwater wound up in the Court of Appeal, where it was decided that the NLA has the authority to compel Meltwater and other media agencies to comply and pay the licensing fees before linking to a news story on a print publication’s website. Moreover, the court ruled that even Meltwater’s clients must have their own license to have the ability to access the links they receive from Meltwater.
If that weren’t enough, the court also stipulated that a headline is a separate literary work aside from the article, thus allowing the NLA to collect more licensing fees.
The case will be heard before Britain’s Supreme Court in 2013. For now, uncertainty abounds as to whether or not clicking a link to a news story legally constitutes copyright infringement.
In the meantime, the NLA contends the ruling does not open the door for ridiculous, user-clicking copyright infringement lawsuits. Instead, the NLA insists they are more concerned about publishers receiving fair compensation for the content they publish.
But this lawsuit could have serious international Internet repercussions. Who’s to say that other news agencies, or anyone who produces web content, won’t sue webmasters for copyright infringement for simply linking to a headline?
According to the high court’s reasoning, anyone who puts a link with the headline of a news story or web content directed toward the original publisher can be held liable for copyright infringement.
If the High Court in Britain upholds the appellate court’s ruling, how long will it be before similar rulings make their way across the European Union and eventually across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States?
Can you imagine having to pay a blanket copyright licensing fee just to post source links on your website, or face the consequences for copyright infringement?
No one begrudges the NLA for wanting to protect their revenue stream. After all, any good business would want to do just that, but not without considering the unintended consequences. In this case, the unintended copyright licensing consequences may turn out to be….well…bloody awful.
On March 1, 2012, Beaverton, Oregon church pastor, Patrick O’Neal, filed suit against Julie Anne Smith, her daughter, and three other former members of his congregation, claiming that their negative posts on Smith’s “Beaverton Grace Bible Church Survivors” blog cost the church $500,000 in damages.
Linda Williams, attorney for defendant Julie Anne Smith, said that to equate the negative posts with half a million dollars in damages would be “extremely difficult” to prove. “[They] just didn’t cause that much damage,” she reasoned.
Smith has since filed a free speech motion, claiming that her critical comments online were protected by free speech rights and the First Amendment. “It may not be what [they] want to hear,” Smith said, and continued on to explain that she “absolutely had the right” to post her criticism and feelings about the congregation online.
The issue began a few years ago when Smith left the church to find one better suited to her spiritual beliefs. According to documents, since Smith left, former church friends and members inexplicably began shunning her in public. After meeting with others in the community who had also left the church, Smith realized that she was not the only one in town to experience the same strange happenings. Others, like Smith, started popping up and expressing dismay over the “creepy” and “cult-like” treatment they received after leaving the church.
Smith posted a negative review in Google Reviews, and other members answered her post with a barrage of positive feedback. To give a voice to people who felt harmed by the church, Smith started the blog entitled “Beaverton Grace Bible Church Survivors.”
Since the defamation lawsuit was filed, Julie Anne Smith says she’s been met with tons of positive support from others who left Beaverton Grace Bible church. Both she and her defendant expect the case to be dismissed, whether through the freedom of speech motion or through the trial process.
Online libel is still a young subset of defamation law, and while there are precedents, it’s never a certainty which way a jury or judge will sway when deciding the outcome of a cyberlibel lawsuit.
For their part, Beaverton Grace Bible Church representatives have declined to comment. According to reports, the church’s answering machine was completely full when television reporters tried to call.
An educator in Florida won a huge workplace defamation lawsuit. Katherine Murphy, former principal at the Aventura City of Excellence school (ACES), was awarded $155 million in damages after successfully proving that another school executive, Eric Soroka, spread false rumors, which resulted in her firing.
Workplace Defamation Lawsuit Origins
According to the South Florida Business Journal, school and city manager, Eric Soroka, and former principal, Katherine Murphy, had a publicly contentious relationship. In 2006, Soroka was instrumental is removing Murphy from her position as a school executive – she was dismissed for allegedly stealing money to fund a trip to Switzerland. Murphy, though, insists she paid for the trip and was reimbursed for legitimate expenses after returning. Soroka, supposedly, called Murphy a “slut” as retribution for Murphy talking to the press without his permission, and he also allegedly tried to prevent Murphy from communicating with elected officials.
Ostensibly fed up with the public disparagement, Murphy filed a workplace defamation lawsuit against Soroka. She asked for a cool $155 million as restitution for distress, a damaged reputation and potential lost income.
And guess what? She won. In fact, Murphy was also awarded $500,000 in punitive damages.
Soroka is now filing an appeal. Specifically, he’s claiming that the damages awarded were duplicative and should be reconsidered. “Mr. Soroka’s position is that he is entitled to a judgment in his favor with respect to all claims asserted against him. The jury verdict is contrary to the evidence presented at trial and we are confident that Mr. Soroka’s motion will dispose of the lawsuit,” Soroka’s lawyer said in a statement released to the press.
What Must You Prove To Win A Workplace Defamation Lawsuit
Workplace defamation lawsuits follow the same standards as individual slander and libel lawsuits. The plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s statements:
(a) Caused harm;
(b) Are false;
(c) Were published even though the defendant knew the information was false, or published without adequate research;
In addition, a workplace defamation lawsuit must be filed within the statute of limitations for defamation.
If you need a workplace defamation attorney, contact Kelly / Warner law today to speak with one of our slander and libel lawyers.
Are you being sued for cyber defamation? Looking to mount a libel defense? Below are five strategies against online defamation charges that have worked in the past.
Internet Defamation Defense #1: Truth
Truth is always a defense for defamation, but that’s not to say that one can’t be brought up on another tort, like false light or intentional infliction of emotional distress. However, if the statement in question is provably false, then chances of winning a defamation lawsuit increase significantly.
Internet Defamation Defense #2: Fair Comment and Criticism
Many bloggers are amateur pundits that don’t have access to professionally acceptable fact-checking resources and tools. As a result, many rely on questionable sources, and then find themselves in the defamation ring. As such, the old legal standard of “Fair comment and criticism” is often used in cyber defamation cases.
Internet Defamation Defense #3: Reasonable Comment
An important spoke of cyber defamation is the question of reasonableness. If a given statement is blatantly outrageous, a judge or jury may deem it too unbelievable to be defamatory. Many bloggers have escaped libel verdicts by successfully arguing that the material was obviously hyperbolic opinion, not meant to be taken seriously, but instead prove a point of absurdity.
Internet Defamation Defense #4: Not Damaging
If a defendant is able to prove that their statement didn’t cause the harm the plaintiff claims, a judge or jury may rule in their favor. Remember, defamation only exists when damage or harm of some sort occurs. For example, if nobody saw the material in question, it couldn’t have caused that much harm, and therefore not defamatory; as such, if a defendant is able to prove that nobody accessed the page on which the material appeared, it would be difficult for the plaintiff to prove that it caused damage.
Internet Defamation Defense #5: It Wasn’t Me – Section 230 of the CDA
Social media and user-generated content is now the norm. Moreover, a large percentage of websites are interactive. As a result, several years ago the government passed an amendment to the Communications Decency Act – Section 230. Section 230 of the CDA provides protection for website operators so they aren’t held liable for the actions of site users.
If you are being sued for online defamation and in search of an Internet libel attorney, get in touch with Kelly / Warner Law. We have a skilled team that focuses on online defamation lawsuits. Our firm is home to both defamation prosecuting and defense attorneys — and perhaps most importantly, our rates are set with small- to medium-sized businesses in mind. Click here to send an email or give us a call at 1-866-570-8585 to begin the conversation.
What is trade libel? It’s the act of lying about a business or product — and instances are skyrocketing because of online reviews.
The Basics Of Libel Law
Standard defamation rules apply in trade libel lawsuits. Plaintiffs must prove that:
- The materials in question are provably false and unprivileged statements of fact;
- The defendants’ statements caused financial or reputational harm; and
- The defendants didn’t properly fact check before publishing or broadcasting the report.
Specifics Considered In Trade Libel Lawsuits
What must people prove to win business defamation claims?
- As is the case with most slander and libel claims, plaintiffs must provide evidence of monetary damages.
- Plaintiffs must prove that the defendants acted intentionally.
- Trade libel claimants can seek compensatory damages, punitive damages, and injunctive relief.
Defenses Against Trade Libel
- Defendants who can prove that they didn’t publish or broadcast the comment have a great shot at winning.
- Tyrion Lannister explained it best, “It’s not slander if it’s true.” Defendants who can prove truth typically win.
- A successful trade libel claim requires proof of harm. If plaintiffs can’t show how statements directly led to profit loss, the likelihood of winning is slim.
The Lanham Act & Trade Libel
“Any person who…in connection with any goods or services…uses in commerce any…false or misleading description of fact, which…in commercial advertising or promotion misrepresents the nature, characteristics, or qualities…of his or her or another person’s goods, services or commercial activities…shall be liable in a civil action by any person who believes that he or she is likely to be damaged by such act.”
The above quote is an excerpt from the Lanham Act, the nation’s false advertising law that prohibits intentional and unsubstantiated product and professional disparagement.
Competition is healthy, and competitors can compare products. Criticizing rivals’ products, based on personal tastes or preferences, is allowed. But, if someone makes a statement in bad faith, all privileges disappear.