Thursday, January 08, 2009

Libel Law? in a Comment?

I don't fully understand libel law. Say someone, with a handle/user_name that wasn't their real name, but otherwise anonymous, at least to readers, left a comment about me on a website somewhere. Let's pretend I am called Mr Smith for this example. So the comment says "Mr Smith is a dumb idiot", (it doesn't actually say that but something similar.) I have asked the website to remove the comment several times but they will not. They refuse. They say their policy is not to remove comments, except in extreme circumstances. Do I have anything legal I can throw at them? Or do I just have to suck it up? Personally I find it a little extreme to have my reputation sullied publicly by someone lacking in so little backbone, that they say these kinds of things undercover of a false name.

This Post was written by Sam from Becks & Posh who would like to reiterate that this example is fictional and that any resemblance to any real Mr Smith, living or dead is not the intention.


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Anita (Married... with dinner) said...

As I think I recall from my journalism-school classes, personal opinions are protected under libel/slander law. So if someone says "Mr Smith is an idiot", that's not slander. Nor is "Mr Smith is a terrible pastry chef who makes sickly sweet desserts" or "Mr Smith gives unpleasant foot-massage in a badly decorated office."

However, if someone said "Mr Smith is a terrorist" or "Mr Smith beats his children" or (as in the case of the Yelp review currently working its way through the courts) "Dr Smith cheats insurance companies", that is actionable, because the claim is both verifiability false -and- damaging to Smith's reputation.

And in any instance, regardless of how outrageous the claim or damaging the outcome, truth is a defense. If Dr Smith is actually cheating insurers (or abusing his kids), then the person who said/wrote it is protected.

All of this is written with two very large caveats: I am obviously not an attorney, and the last time I had a refresher in libel was possibly 12 years ago.

There's a very nice overview of US libel law at

Anita (Married... with dinner) said...

sorry, forgot to clarify that this is based on US libel law; other countries (including the UK) have much less-stringent definitions of libel.

Yvo said...

What Anita said - basically if it's damaging to you then you have a case, but if it's just someone saying you're an idiot, basically, thicken that skin up and turn a deaf ear/blind eye to it. Don't even give them a second thought... that just gives them pleasure to know it's bothering you

Sam said...

Thanks everyone - it's not really the comment that pisses me off so much - I mean you can't get more spineless than leaving such a thing anonymously on the net somewhere. What annoys me is that the website chose not to remove it at my request. How hard could it have been for them to encourage good relatinships with their readers. It's a commercial website I had been very supportive of publicly until that happened. Oh well they win some, they lose some. I never read it any more.

Almost Vegetarian said...

My understanding is you have to go after the person who said it, and not the place where it was said.

However, if you can find their rules and their rules say you have to play nice, then you can use this as leverage. Slim hope, I know, but better than nothing.

Good luck.

SaltShaker said...

Libel and slander don't apply to a statement of opinion, but to a mis-statement of something that's proveably factual, and with verifiably damaging consequences to you personally either in reputation or business, or with clear intent to cause that damage. Anita stated it quite well with examples.

You also lose some element of protection if any statements are made about something that you have openly and publicly stated or written (rather than something that you might have said in confidence, privately, to that person), such as in a blog - someone can choose to disagree and/or give an opinion about your statements or about your qualifications to express them - and it would unlikely be cause for a slander or libel suit.

Owen said...

Sam - I know you are too classy a person to descend to this level, but if it were me I would name names. Then we could ALL not go that website anymore! After all they want to leave the comment up...

Wonder what they would do if someone just started posting '[commercial website main editor name] is a big fat idiot'?

I suspect it is one of three I have in mind that I haven't bothered with for a long time now.

Don't let it/them get to you. It isn't worth it.

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REC(ession)IPES said...

As others have said, you can only go after them if they make a false statement of fact about you, not their opinion, even if its insulting. I would also suggest that you should attempt to take this as something of a compliment (i know, i know, but hear me out): its a sign that you're being widely followed. All publicity is good publicity, right? This person is still spreading the word about you, and strong opinions, even negative ones, may well inspire people to check you out for themselves. It must be galling, but perhaps try to think about it that way? Anyway, hope whoever it is gets bored and knocks it off.

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