Carol Neumann may yet get the last word in her fight against an online critic.
Last week the Oregon Court of Appeals revived a lawsuit that Neumann filed against a man who made some scathing online comments about her small business. The suit had been thrown out by a Lane County Circuit Court judge under a state law aimed at protecting people from harassment by lawsuits in matters of public interest.
The decision means Neumann may at some point get her day in court and a chance to clear her own name and that of her small business. However, a lawyer for the defendant in the suit has said she will ask the appeals court to reconsider its ruling and may appeal it.
Linda Williams, a Portland attorney who represented online critic Christopher Liles, said she believes the lower court was correct to dismiss the lawsuit. She said the appeals court ruling sets the wrong precedent for the booming world of online reviews.
"We just think they got defamation law wrong," Williams said. "It is extraordinary for the Oregon Court of Appeals to treat online consumer reviews or gripes as defamatory."
But Steve Baldwin, the Eugene attorney representing Neumann, said he thinks the appeals court got it right. He said the decision recognizes the established view of defamation and that the advent of a freewheeling world of Internet reviews doesn't change that.
"The First Amendment has a long and storied history in this country, and the law of defamation has coexisted right beside it for 250 years," he said. "It is actionable if you post false statements of fact about a person that damage their reputation."
Neumann and her partner, Tim Benton, run a picturesque wedding and events site near Cheshire called Dancing Deer Mountain. The forested retreat had begun to develop a reputation as an idyllic location for special events when the couple had a run-in with a wedding party they say flouted the terms of a signed rental agreement.
The result was a series of fulminous online reviews in which mostly anonymous writers blasted Neumann and the business, saying their experience at the June 2010 wedding had been a disaster. After the remarks hit the Web, bookings for the next year nose-dived and the couple said they lost an estimated $20,000 in business.
At first, Neumann and Benton fought back in the same way as their critics. They contacted the websites that hosted the harsh comments and persuaded them to remove them as unfair and untrue.
They also hired a company to boost the business' image and post positive comments from past customers. But the critics continued their campaign on other websites, prompting Neumann to seek relief from the courts.
She filed several "John Doe" suits against anonymous posters, but also filed one against Liles, who had posted comments using his name. That suit went before Lane County Circuit Judge Charles Carlson, who dismissed it under what is known as an anti-SLAPP law.
The acronym refers to strategic lawsuits against public participation, a type of suit that earned the name because they were aimed at citizens who spoke out on matters of public interest. The suits often were filed by deep-pocketed corporations or interest groups trying to stop public criticism of such things as building projects, zoning issues or proposed laws or ordinances.
In response, many states, including Oregon, passed what are known as anti-SLAPP laws. The laws require courts to throw out suits that don't meet certain legal thresholds to weed out those that would unduly infringe on free speech rights.
Oregon's law was used, for example, to block a lawsuit by former Lane County commissioner Rob Handy over the county administration's handling of certain accusations made against him. Handy was later cleared of wrongdoing.
The law was passed in 2001 and doesn't yet have much history with the state appeals courts. It's unclear what effect the ruling might have on the now-common practice of posting reviews, sometimes extremely negative ones, on the Web.
In its ruling, a three-judge panel of the appeals court said Neumann's lawsuit contained sufficient evidence of defamation to overcome the anti-SLAPP claim and could proceed in court. The judges noted that in this type of case, defamation includes false statements that attribute to another conduct or characteristics incompatible with proper business conduct.
The court in particular cited statements in Liles' reviews that claimed Neumann was rude and crooked, changed the rules and would find a way to keep patrons' deposits. Neumann and two others who were present at the wedding signed affidavits saying those statements are not true.
And the court rejected Liles' claim that the statements were only opinion not subject to defamation suits. Even though Liles used the phrase "in my opinion" at one point, his statements "could be understood to state facts or imply the existence of undisclosed defamatory facts," the judges ruled.
The decision also rejected the claim that the context of Liles' posts shows that they were simply rhetoric or hyperbole. The posts included details that could be read as facts, it said.
"Those factual details demonstrate that defendant's statements are not mere hyperbole and, more to the point, would not be brushed off as mere hyperbole by a reasonable reader of those statements," the ruling says.
The court reversed the trial court decision and sent the case back to Lane County to proceed on the defamation claim. The judges also vacated a lower court ruling requiring Neumann to pay Liles' attorney fees.
No new court dates have been set.
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