What is defamation? Yelp and a PTA member

I just posted the news that Shirley Sherrod settled her defamation case against (dead) Andrew Breitbart. So it’s timely to offer a couple of other new defamation cases. As if I were waiting for the opportunity…

Both new cases demonstrate how careless, how ignorant people have become about the distinction between “free speech” and slander.

Blame it on the febrile amorality of social media, on media loudmouths who spew hateful opinions into the air, seemingly with impunity. People who follow the (dead) Breitbarts of this world seem to think, hey, if he can say that stuff, it’s OK for me to express myself and my feelings.

I’ve previously offered the legal definition of defamation via Black’s Law Dictionary:

defamation, n. 1. The act of harming the reputation of another by making a false statement to a third person. If the alleged defamation involves a matter of public concern, the plaintiff is constitutionally required to prove both the statement’s falsity and the defendant’s fault. 2. A false written or oral statement that damages another’s reputation.

The first case, reported in the Daily News (S.I. woman must pay $1G fine for bashing business on Yelp), concerns a woman who mouthed off (loudly) on Yelp about a floor contractor whose work didn’t satisfy her. (Here’s my oft-stated comment about Yelp and other free-for-all opinionators.)

The reviews are in — and they’ll cost a Staten Island woman $1,000.

That’s how much a judge has ordered Emily Fanelli to pay for bashing the owner of a floor refinishing business as a “liar” and a “con artist” in scathing online reviews.

“Are you kidding me? I’m sick,” the 67-year-old said after she found about the judge’s ruling from the Daily News.

“People do reviews all the time. I shouldn’t have to pay anything,” she said. “It’s freedom of speech.”

If Fanelli is still yammering, she can’t hear me sighing, deeply. See my comment above re “freedom of speech.” Because I agree with the judge: Fanelli’s “freedom” crossed over into defamation territory.

Let me explain it to her. Or, rather, let me quote the judge in her case:

In his ruling, Straniere said that post was “opinion and protected speech,” but the first two crossed the line from opinion to libel.

“Terms such as ‘scam,’ ‘con artist’ and ‘robs’ imply actions approaching criminal wrongdoing rather than someone who failed to live up to the terms of a contract,” Straniere wrote.

“They were personal in their invective and were designed to impugn his integrity and business practices with the intent to damage his business reputation,” the judge said, ordering Fanelli to pay Gardiner $1000.

The notable civil rights lawyer, Norman Siegel, expressed his opinion in the Daily News:

Norman Siegel, a noted civil rights attorney not involved in the case, said the ruling “could chill people from expressing their negative opinions.”

“Opinions are protected speech,” Siegel said, and Fanelli’s comments — while extreme — are opinion.

“Context is important,” he said. “She was just spouting off and giving her opinion about his services.”

“If she called him a convicted felon, that would be different,” he said.

I think very highly of Norman Siegel but I don’t agree with him here. Maybe he didn’t read what Fanelli wrote. Which, in part, was:

“this guy mat the owner is a scam do not use him you will regret doing business with this company I’m going to court he is a scam customers please beware he will destroy your floors he is nothing by a liar he robs customers, and promises you everything if you want s— then go with him if you like nice work find another he is A SCAM LIAR BULL—-ER.”

Fanelli says she’s going to appeal. Fanelli says she’s not going to pay the judgment. Fanelli says a lot of stuff.

Here’s news about the second defamation lawsuit which offers all of us another lesson in the consequences of talking trash publicly.

Defamation Lawsuit by Teacher Against PTA Officer Moves Forward

Andrew Keshner, New York Law Journal  

An elementary school teacher who alleges that the vice president of her school’s PTA said the teacher “makes children cry every day” can proceed with her defamation suit, a judge has ruled.

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