If you’ve ever sat on a board of directors, you know. You know that BOD meetings can quickly turn into a verbal UFC match — which is why they’re a regular source of slander and libel lawsuits.
But here’s the legal rub: in many situations, board of director showdowns are protected from the go-go-Gadget arm of U.S. defamation law – thanks to a legal concept known as privilege.
Privilege Affects Many Defamation Lawsuits, Especially Ones Born From Board of Directors Meetings
What’s privilege, legally speaking? No, it doesn’t mean “legal advantage, rich folks” (though, many people would disagree). In legal terms, “privilege” describes a protected relationship. Doctors and patients, attorneys and clients, spouses – they all enjoy a certain amount of “privilege,” meaning that particular aspects of their conversations, between each other, are not subject to defamation law. Same goes for certain board of directors meetings.
Why are some BOD gatherings legally protected, verbal free-for-alls, operating outside of slander and libel laws? Because organizations, businesses and groups need to be able to discuss suspicions, rumors and other unpleasantries. Doing so is part of how healthy establishments maintain good public reputations and keep their respective management engines chugging along.
Which is why a recently filed board of directors defamation lawsuit out of Idaho may prove fruitless.
The Incident: Accusations Fly at a BOD Meeting
Here’s what happened:
- A sport’s club, with volunteer participants, had two heated board of directors’ meetings.
- At the first, one of the members accused another member of filching funds.
- At the second, the accused demanded an apology – which never came.
- Ultimately, records proved the accusation inaccurate.
- The accused party filed a defamation lawsuit against its accuser.
What Plaintiffs Must Prove To Win A Defamation Lawsuit
To win a slander or libel lawsuit, plaintiffs typically have to prove a lot more than a simple untruth. At the very least, claimants must convince a judge or jury that the defendant:
- Made a false statement of fact about the plaintiff;
- Acted negligently, recklessly or with actual malice; and
- Caused harm – material or reputational – via the contested statement.
Applying the Standards to this Board of Directors Defamation Case
If reports are accurate – and there aren’t any unknown extenuating circumstances – the plaintiff may win this board of directors’ defamation case. Publicly and falsely calling someone a thief is inherently harmful to a reputation. It’s considered “defamation per se” in some jurisdictions. And in per se cases, the plaintiff usually doesn’t have to prove harm.
BUT! Privilege May Save the BOD
As stated, legally speaking, privileged statements are “protected” statements. Speech that falls under the “privilege umbrella” may not be defamatory – even if inaccurate. Absolutely privileged statements are sometimes 100% immune from legal action. When language is labeled as “qualified privilege,” to win, the plaintiff must meet a higher standard of proof.
In this case, the board of directors’ meeting may be considered a “privileged meeting.” If it is, the plaintiff may not be able to win any damages.
A Common Misconception about Defamation
Over the past decade, the word “slander” has assumed a colloquial meaning, in addition to the legal one. It’s common for people to say a negative comment is “slanderous.” But as discussed above, actual slander involves a whole lot more than a negative opinion.
Contact a Defamation Attorney
Free speech is a cornerstone of American life. However, you can’t maliciously lie about another party. Doing so is defamatory, and legal remedies are available to people on the receiving end.
Kelly / Warner works with individuals and businesses that have been illegally disparaged. Our attorneys handle all manners of slander and libel lawsuits – both online and off, personal and business-related.
We’re a full-service, boutique practice that offers better-than-big-firm results for a fraction of the price. Not to brag, but our success record is something of which we’re exceptionally proud.
More encouraging, rectifying a board of directors’ defamation issue doesn’t always involve a lawsuit.
Has anybody in the United States successfully sued Google for defamation? Attempts have been waged, but the plaintiffs’ crusades usually fail. Sure, folks win defamation lawsuits against authors of defamatory statements. But against Google? Nah. Google almost always walks away unscathed – fresh as a Mentos factory.
Stateside statutes make it very difficult for claimants to win “Google defamation” lawsuits. After all, Big G doesn’t create 95% of the content it displays; it simply acts as an aggregator of third-party information.
But not every country has laws that protect Internet service providers and user-content platforms. Recently, an Australian court ruled against the mega-search-engine in what has quickly become a high-profile online libel lawsuit, which, theoretically, has the power to decimate Google down under.
Doctor Defamation Lawsuits: The Usual Story
It happens a lot. A medical professional treats a petulant “Mr. Patient.” Things don’t go well. Mr. Patient isn’t thrilled with the doctor’s work or bedside manner or billing practices or bad breath. So, good ole’ Patient takes to the Internet and shout-types his woes to the world.
Sometimes, in online patient v. doctor brawls, the digital diatribes are legitimate complaints; sometimes they’re exaggerations, and sometimes they’re bold-faced lies. No matter the category, online reviews have the power to demolish practices and ruin careers. Which is why many doctors move forward with Internet defamation lawsuits in the face of hyperbolic, inaccurate and damaging Internet rants.
And believe it or not, the case jurisdiction has a huge effect on the likelihood if its success.
Defamation Laws Vary, Greatly, By Nation
Nearly every country in the world has defamation laws, but the terms of those laws are as varied as humanity itself. For example, in countries that still recognize a monarchy (not all), the crime of lese majeste (in today’s parlance, trash talking royals) can get you thrown in the clink – for years. In some non-secular countries, profanity and blasphemy can land you six feet under.
And believe it or not, British Commonwealth countries and the United States – though similar in many ways – are on arguably opposite ends of the defamation scale. In short, countries like Great Britain, Australia and Canada are primarily plaintiff-friendly when it comes to slander and libel laws, whereas the U.S. is decidedly defendant-friendly.
Australian Doctor Disparaged on U.S.-Based Ripoff Report Goes After Google for Defamation
The contracts between U.S. and Australian defamation laws recently took center stage in a shocking ruling by the South Australian Supreme Court – and the decision may have Google a shaking in its bytes.
Here’s the story:
A peeved Australian medical patient blasted a doctor on infamous consumer review website RipoffReport.com. Clearly, the doctor wasn’t pleased – so she initiated legal action. Interestingly, the doctor opted to include Google as a defendant. Interesting because it’s almost unheard of to win an indexing defamation lawsuit against the Mighty G (especially in the United States). Nevertheless, our intrepid doctor went for it. Why?
Well, when the disparaging and damaging content appeared on RipoffReport.com, the doctor alerted Google of its defamatory nature. But Google did nothing. The hyperlink remained front and center in the index. She felt the search engine ought to be held liable, too.
Doctor Wins Google Defamation Lawsuit
And guess what? She WON! Against Google! The Teflon Google! A court held the search engine accountable for content published on Ripoffreport.com!
“How!?” You might ask.
The court reasoned:
“If a search of Dr Duffy’s name had merely returned the URL of the first Ripoff Report webpage without functioning as a hyperlink and without accompanying text, it could not be said that Google was a publisher of the content of that material. To access the first Ripoff Report webpage, the user would need to enter the URL into the address box of the internet browser.”
A U.S. court would not have returned this verdict. No way, no how. Because there’s a law in the United States – commonly known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – which effectively frees internet service providers – and many social media platforms – from defamation liability over third-party content. Or, to put it more simply: many websites are not held legally accountable for user content and posts.
Google Defamation Rules: What Happens If A Country Doesn’t Protect ISPs From Third-Party Liability?
But what happens when an international online behemoth, like Google, is slapped by a ‘foreign’ court? Does it affect the rest of the world? After all, the Internet has smudged the line between nation states. And even though there is a Google for each one, thanks to VPNs, cross-border networks and, heck, even easily available travel options, people aren’t necessarily relegated to their hometown Google.
The Law Is Nebulous
So, must the search engine apply an Australian court’s ruling across the global board? Is the mighty G responsible for thwarting an Australian online rant-typer on “Google, America”?
To be sure, no definitive answer exists. Like the Internet itself, international Internet laws are complex and in constant flux. Countries try to do their parts by limiting the amount of “online libel tourism” (Internet defamation plaintiffs who shop for the friendliest jurisdiction). But government statutes aren’t airtight. In fact, a few years ago, the U.K. tried to put a stop to libel tourism by revising their defamation laws, but people are still finding loopholes to use England’s ostensibly pro-plaintiff slander and libel laws.
The Inevitable Upcoming Fight Against Australia’s Google Defamation Ruling
The Australian defamation ruling against Google has tech and legal tongues wagging. Pundits are concerned about the possible (and largely theoretical) censorship implications. The decision, arguably, also sets a bad precedence for continued online innovation.
Every pundit and lawyer expects Google to appeal. It’s sure as done. If a higher Australian court doesn’t overturn the current mandate, Google may morph into a very different search animal down under. Until then, expect a metric ton of amicus briefs to be written, by independent watch groups and attorneys, on behalf of Google.