Jim Porter: Crazy whack-jobs get pass for Internet rants
August 15, 2013
One of my pet peeves, and I have a bunch, is the apparent lack of truth foisted on readers by anonymous web writers.
A pseudonym is a license to say anything as an expert, true or not. Truth filter off. Then again, I am old fashioned that way. Or you could just say I'm old.
DISPARAGING COMMENTS ON INTERNET
Yelp is an internet website, but you know that. When you want to go out to dinner and you're not sure about a restaurant on the other side of town, you check patrons' reviews on Yelp, or, if you are thinking about renting an apartment, you check Yelp.
So how much does the truth matter when you provide input to Yelp? Here's a case coming out of San Francisco about a Jones Street apartment building lived in for several years by tenant Andreas Papaliolios.
Let's just say that Papaliolios was not real happy about the building and its owner Christopher Bently who also lived there.
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OUTRAGEOUS REVIEW ON YELP
Here are a few comments posted on Yelp by Papaliolios in no particular order: "The owner is a sociopathic narcissist — who celebrates making the lives of tenants hell … the owner's abhorrent behaviors (likely) contributed to the death of three tenants … the owner sought evictions of six of those long-term tenants, even though rent was paid-in-full … There is NO RENT low enough to make residency here worthwhile … The owner's noise, intrusions and other abhorrent behaviors (likely) contributed to the departure of eight long-term tenants … This is my own first-hand experience with this building … I have personally witnessed the abhorrent behavior of the owners."
Would you want to rent an apartment in the Jones Street building? Or would you rather sue Papaliolios? That's what I thought, and so did the owner of the building.
LIBELOUS REVIEW ON YELP
At owner Bently's request Yelp pulled Papaliolios' comments, but they were up long enough to discourage would-be tenants.
Bently sued Papaliolios for defamation: false statements, not merely expressions of opinion. Papaliolios lost the first round and the case made it to the California Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal discussed the broader issue of anonymous internet postings which the Court noted: "promote a looser, more relaxed communication style" in which users may "substitute gossip for accurate reporting and often adopt a provocative, even combative tone." … "Online pseudonyms tends to heighten this sense that 'anything goes,' and some commentators have likened cyberspace to a frontier society free from the conventions and constraints that limit discourse in the real world." So true.
In one case someone wrote that a corporate president was part of a management team of "boobs, losers and crooks" and she "has fat thighs, a fake medical degree and poor feminine hygiene." That hurts.
That court found the rantor's comments "crude and ungrammatical language — merely juvenile name-calling" — nonactionable opinion.
Another court concluded that "alleged embellishments, to the effect the plaintiff picks up streetwalkers and homeless drug addicts and is a deadbeat dad," were too generalized and vitriolic to form the basis of a lawsuit. Doesn't sound general to me.
COURT RULING/NO WHACK-JOB
The Court of Appeal analyzed Papaliolios' specific statements, posted as "Sal. R.," and found most to be untrue. They were not "free-flowing diatribes or rants with lots of improper spelling and grammar mistakes" as might be written by a whack-job (that's my word). So Bently is able to take his defamation case to the jury.
BE WILD AND CRAZY
The lesson here is when you are ranting away under a pseudonym (or not), make your point but rant crazy-style like an illiterate madman who should not be taken seriously.
That should get you out of any defamation lawsuit. It has come to that. It is a crazy, crazy world, and the crazier you are, the nastier you can be — with impunity.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the firm's website http://www.portersimon.com. Find us on Facebook.
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