When California consumer backlash becomes a legal matter

Some people in the entertainment field — and that’s a considerable list in Los Angeles — feel all publicity is welcome because it attracts the public eye. Accolades and brutal criticism both draw attention. However, public statements also carry the power to topple a personal or business reputation or both.

Does a California business ignore its online detractors or fight back in court? Plaintiffs in Internet defamation cases argue that someone’s words have caused harm that translated into losses. The center of disputes is whether disparaging statements are true or imply truth.

A person dissatisfied with a purchase or service may slam a company on a consumer review site or in a blog. We all have legal protection to express opinions; the truth of an opinion cannot be proven and, therefore, does not qualify as libel or slander. At the same time, individuals and businesses also have the right to defend against false claims.

Intellectual property laws are guidelines for libel and slander cases, but interpretation of a disputed statement may be subjective. Certainly, plaintiffs and defendants differ in how they view the written or spoken word. Courts have the complicated task of deciding the meaning and public impact of a statement, based on language and context.

A defendant may avoid formal blame and costly continued litigation by agreeing in a settlement that an online statement was false. This gives the plaintiff a chance to diffuse reputation damage by obtaining a court order to have Internet search providers de-index links to the harmful statement. Access to negative remarks may be stifled, but under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, websites can’t be forced to remove comments.

California individuals and businesses want to know the legal options they have when defamation is suspected. The answers may not require a court date.

Source: The Arizona Republic, “Internet opens door to free speech that can get expensive” Peter Corbett, Apr. 21, 2014