Online Review Defamation: What Is The Line Between Free Speech & Defamation?
An online review defamation case out of the UK raises a tricky question about Internet criticism:
Where, exactly, is the “free speech line” when it comes to rants on Yelp!, Ripoff Report and TripAdvisor?
Below, we’ll discuss the case, explain the thin line between free speech and defamation, and give some tips on what NOT to do if a bad review lands online.
One Man, Many Reviews
In 2013, executives at TripAdvisor knighted Chris Hobson “Top UK Contributor.” What travel reviewing feats earned him the honor? He published more TripAdvisor reviews than anybody else in Her Majesty’s realm – 512 in a 12-month period, to be exact. The line is thin between free speech and libel, and judges must tread carefully.
Impressive? Sure, why not. But, let’s not pretend that 512 restaurant reviews in a year means Hobson had to dine out at 10 or 11 different eateries every week. Is it possible? Sure, why not. But the required frequency does raise questions about the veracity of his posts – which, granted, could be easily explained. Still, it’s fair to note.
Showdown at the Double Barrel Real Steakhouse and Grill
In the not too distant past, Chris Hobson and his wife found themselves in South Yorkshire at the Double Barrel Real Steakhouse and Grill. She ordered a steak, which, in her eyes, “was grossly overcooked.” The Hobsons complained and got 30% of their bill – on the spot.
To TripAdvisor, He Went!
Soon after, a terrible review appeared on the Double Barrel’s TripAdvisor page – penned by none other than Mr. Restaurant Reviewer himself, Chris Hobson.
One-Star On TripAdvisor
Hobson gave the Double Barrel one star. His review mentioned the cremated steak.
Sarah Bird, the head honcho at Double Barrel, posted a rebuttal under Hobson’s unflattering review. But, moderators removed it for being too “threatening.” Bird, however, insists that she’s unfairly trapped between a burning oven and a servers’ strike, because Hobson is allowed to – in her opinion – “blackmail” free meals, but the restaurant isn’t allowed to respond.
“It’s the way that this industry is going, there are people out there that want to get a free meal,” complained the restaurant director.
Are Restaurant Owners Getting Bamboozled By Fake Review Con Artists? Or, Are Reviewers Being Unfairly Intimidated By Litigious Business Owners?
Where you stand on this story is probably informed by your profession and lifestyle. If you run a hospitality business that has suffered the blow of an unflattering online review, Sarah Bird probably has your sympathies. If, however, you are an avid online reviewer – with a passion for free speech – you’re probably leaning Team Hobson.
That’s the tricky thing with defamation – the line is thin between free speech and libel, and judges must tread carefully.
Two Sides To Every Story – Even In Online Review Defamation Lawsuits
When it comes to online defamation, there are usually two viable sides to the story. After all, is a business owner supposed to turn over and play dead if someone unfairly and blatantly lies about their services or operation?
Free speech does not afford the freedom to maliciously spread lies.
Harmful Lies Aren’t Protected By Free Speech Laws
Free speech is essential, but it’s unwise to scream “unfair!” every time news of an online review defamation lawsuit hits headlines. Get the facts first. Think about it: would you welcome a bold-face lie that cost you your job? Wouldn’t you want to sue?
On the other hand, free speech is vital to – if not the lifeblood of — a free society. Without it, libel lawsuits can be used to silence critics. The United States’ defendant-friendly defamation laws mitigate the possibility of politicians litigating their way to power. Free speech does not afford the freedom to maliciously spread lies.
What NOT To Do if you’re A Victim Of Online Review Defamation
If you are a business owner and victim of online review defamation don’t:
- Immediately Post a nasty reply to your defamer;
- Accuse your defamer of being a blackmailer; leave it for a lawsuit;
- Threaten your defamer in a reply post with a lawsuit; again, if you plan to take legal action, let your lawyer handle everything. Failing to do so may cost you the case.
If you run a restaurant, bed and breakfast, hotel or another type of hospitality business, and you’ve been defamed online, contact an attorney who has successfully handled these types of defamation cases.
If someone lies about your business online, it’s not free speech, it’s defamation – and you can do something about it. Get in touch today to begin the conversation about your online review defamation situation.Yes! I’m Ready To Speak With A Defamation Lawyer »