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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Libel Law, Linking, and "Scam"

Although I'm a little late to the party in writing about Redmond v. Gawker Media, I thought I'd highlight it here because, though lamentably unpublished , the decision has interesting implications for online libel cases, even though the court that decided it seems to have misunderstood the Supreme Court's decision in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal.

Redmond involved claims against "new media" company Gawker Media based on an article on its tech blog Gizmodo titled Smoke and Mirrors: The Greatest Scam in Tech. The article criticized a new tech "startup," calling it " just the latest in a string of seemingly failed tech startups that spans back about two decades, all conceived, helmed and seemingly driven into the ground by one man: Scott Redmond." The article further suggested that Redmond, the CEO of the new company, used “technobabble” to promote products that were not “technologically feasible”  and that his “ventures rarely—if ever—work.”  In other words, the article implied, and the title of the blog post stated explicitly, that Redmond’s business model was a “scam.” Redmond complained to Gizmodo in a lengthy and detailed email, and Gizmodo posted Redmond's email on the site. Regardless, Redmond sued Gawker and the authors of the post for libel and false light. Defendants filed a motion to strike under Califonia’s anti-SLAPP statute. The trial court granted the motion, and the California appellate court affirmed.

Unsurprisingly, the appellate court found that the Gizmodo article concerned an “issue of public interest,” as defined by the anti-SLAPP statute, because Redmond actively sought publicity for his company. The court described “the Gizmodo article [as] a warning to a segment of the public—consumers and investors in the tech company—that [Redmond's] claims about his latest technology were not credible.” This part of the decision is entirely non-controversial, and the court's interpretation of "public interest" is consistent with the goal of anti-SLAPP laws to prevent libel suits from being used to chill speech on matters of significant public interest.

More controversial is the court's determination that Gizmodo's use of the term “scam” was not defamatory (and thus Redmond could not show a probability of prevailing). The court noted that “’scam’ means different things to different people and is used to describe a wide range of conduct;” while the court's assertion is correct, surely at least one of the "different things" that "scam" can mean is defamatory. [For a similar statement, see McCabe v. Rattiner, 814 F.2d 839, 842 (1st Cir. 1987) ]. While the term "scam" is usually hyberbole or name-calling, in some contexts the term acts as an accusation of criminal fraud, especially when accompanied by assertions of deliberate deception for personal gain. However, the court found that "scam" was not defamatory as used in the Gizmodo article, relying heavily on the fact that the authors gave links to “evidence” about the fates of Redmond's prior companies and his method of marketing his new one.  The court concluded that the statement that Redmond's company was a “scam” was “incapable of being proven true or false.”

It is clear that the court's categorization of the statements about Redmond as “opinion rather than fact” relied on online context--both the conventions of the blog and its linguistic style. The court asserted that the article contained only statements of opinion because it was “completely transparent,” revealing all the “sources upon which the authors rel[ied] for their conclusions” and containing “active links to many of the original sources.” Technology-enabled transparency, according to the court,  “put [readers] in a position to draw their own conclusions about [the CEO] and his ventures.” The court also stressed the blog's  “casual first-person style." The authors of the article, according to the court, made “little pretense of objectivity,” thereby putting “reasonable reader[s]” on notice that they were reading “subjective opinions.”

As attractive as this reasoning is, especially to free speech advocates and technophiles, one should read the Redmond decision with caution because it almost certainly overgeneralizes about the types of "opinion" that are constitutionally protected. The Supreme Court's 1990 decision in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal clearly and forcefully indicates that a statement is not constitutionally protected simply because a reader would understand it to reflect the author's subjective point of view.  Instead, the Milkovich Court held that a purported "opinion"  can harm reputation just as much as explicit factual assertions, at least when it implies the existence of defamatory objective facts. Hence, the Court declared that the statement "In my opinion Jones is a liar" can be just as damaging to the reputation of Jones as the statement "Jones is a liar," because readers may assume unstated defamatory facts underlie the supposedly "subjective" opinion. Moreover, even if the author states the underlying facts on which the conclusion is based, the statement can still be defamatory  if the underlying facts are incorrect or incomplete, or if the author draws erroneous conclusions from them. The Court therefore rejected the proposition that defamatory statements should be protected as long as it is clear they reflect the authors' point of view, or as long as they accurately state the facts on which they are based.  [This analysis is freely borrowed from  this article at pp. 924-25, full citations are included there.]

 

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on June 18, 2013 at 03:24 PM in Blogging, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Information and Technology, Lyrissa Lidsky, Torts, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink

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Comments

Why isn't the relevant precedent Greenbelt (and sort of Watts and Hustler)? The point is that in context "scam" is hyperbole that cannot be understood literally.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jun 18, 2013 5:06:59 PM

That is the point, but the California court didn't explain it well.

Posted by: Lyrissa | Jun 18, 2013 5:58:18 PM

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