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I've always been interested in issues related to free speech, but they've also always seemed a bit tricky to make any determinations over as they encompass both opinions and strict legal codes.

As I understand it, libel is construed as untruthful statements that damage a company in some way. But, what if someone's personal opinion is that a company is bad in some way, and then the company loses money as a result of that person voicing that opinion? Can they be sued?

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    Jurisdictions differ: you need at least to say which country you are talking about. – Tim Lymington supports Monica Jul 17 '18 at 17:02
  • Edited in the tags – John Joe Jul 18 '18 at 8:36
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As I understand it, libel is construed as untruthful statements that damage a company in some way. But, what if someone's personal opinion is that a company is bad in some way, and the company loses money as a result? Can they be sued?

Libel is a statement that tends to damage someone's reputation that is made to someone other than the subject of the statement. Truth was historically a defense to liability for libel (although in many circumstances in the United States is has been made part of the prima facie case that must be proved by an accuser).

Ordinarily a libel must be a statement of fact, and a mere opinion is not actionable. But, sometimes an opinion so clearly implies a closely related statement of fact in a particular context that the implied statement of fact arising from the statement of opinion, if false, is actionable.

Anybody can be sued, but they will not have a viable cause of action and their suit will be dismissed, if the alleged statement is truly a statement of opinion, even if it has consequences for a person's reputation and causes them economic harm.

For example, if I say that Calvin Klein clothes look better than American Outfitter's clothes, and people care about my opinion and purchase fewer American Outfitter's clothes, I have not committed actionable libel (even if I don't sincerely believe what I said since it is an opinion either way), even though my statement harmed the company that makes American Outfitter clothes. If I were a celebrity known for being fashionable, such a scenario might even be a plausible one.

  • "subject" would be more clear than "target" of the statement. And you misspelled "libel" in "defense for liability for liable". – Acccumulation Jul 16 '18 at 22:45
  • @Acccumulation Fair points. Edited accordingly. – ohwilleke Jul 16 '18 at 22:47
  • FWIW, historically and in some jurisdictions there were/are some kinds of statements for which truth was/is not a defense (e.g. speaking ill of the queen or of God, mocking the disabled, saying something truthful about an individual in a crass and insulting manner, and sometimes speaking ill of the dead), but none of them would apply in the fact pattern of the original post. – ohwilleke Jul 16 '18 at 23:03
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    One thing that should be added, is the U.S. holds a higher burden of proof on the plaintiff of a libel suit if the plaintiff was (in)famous before the defamatory statement was issued. If I say "Joe Nobody" killed JFK, Joe Nobody has a lesser burden than if I accuse "Chelsea Celebrity" or "Patrick Politician", who are well known public figures with spooky accurate names. – hszmv Aug 17 '18 at 15:20
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It depends on what you say about the business. If you accuse the business of professional incompetence (for example, "the vet murdered my dog by stabbing it in the heart"), you can be sued – this is in the realm of per se libel, where they don't have to prove that they were harmed. On the other hand, you can defend yourself in the suit if you can show that the claim is true. (You claim that the statement is true, plaintiff presents evidence that it is false, the jury decides whose evidence is more persuasive). If you prefix the statement by the expression "In my opinion,...", it's the same, since merely saying that it's your opinion does not convert a defamatory statement into a non-defamatory one. The standard is not that you have to actually assert a false damaging statement, you can be liable for defamation if you imply a false statement. Any statement which would be understood to be a statement of fact and which causes damage to another person could be the basis for a defamation suit, such as the statement "Dr. X supports Proposition X" (where that is a financial death-sentence in the local political context), and again, if the accusation is true, it is not defamatory.

Some negative statements especially web page reviews spew negative attitude, but don't make any factual claim (e.g. "Dr. X is the worst human being ever, his staff are terrible"). For instance, from Vogel v. Felice, defendant called plaintiff one of the top 10 dumbasses. The court rejected this as a defamatory statement because

in order to support a defamation claim, the challenged statement must be found to convey “a provably false factual assertion.” (Moyer v. Amador Valley J. Union High School Dist. (1990) 225 Cal.App.3d 720). A statement that the plaintiff is a “Dumb Ass,” even first among “Dumb Asses,” communicates no factual proposition susceptible of proof or refutation. It is true that “dumb” by itself can convey the relatively concrete meaning “lacking in intelligence.” Even so, depending on context, it may convey a lack less of objectively assayable mental function than of such imponderable and debatable virtues as judgment or wisdom. To call a man “dumb” often means no more than to call him a “fool.” One man’s fool may be another’s savant. Indeed, a corollary of Lincoln’s famous aphorism is that every person is a fool some of the time. Here defendant did not use “dumb” in isolation, but as part of the idiomatic phrase, “dumb ass.” When applied to a whole human being, the term “ass” is a general expression of contempt essentially devoid of factual content. Adding the word “dumb” merely converts “contemptible person” to “contemptible fool.” Plaintiffs were justifiably insulted by this epithet, but they failed entirely to show how it could be found to convey a provable factual proposition.

[emphasis added]. Calling someone terrible or the worst human, etc. does not state or imply a verifiable proposition.

It is very easy to cross the line and say something that is untrue. In the case of Bentley Reserve v. Papalios, defendant posted negative statements about an apartment building, saying...

Sadly, the Building is (newly) owned and occupied by a sociopathic narcissist—who celebrates making the lives of tenants hell.   Of the 16 mostly-long-term tenants who lived in the Building when the new owners moved in, the new owners' noise, intrusions, and other abhorrent behaviors (likely) contributed to the death of three tenants [redacted], and the departure of eight more ([redacted]) in very short order.   Notice how they cleared-out all the upper-floor units, so they could charge higher rents? They have sought evictions of 6 of those long-term tenants, even though rent was paid-in-full, and those tenants bothered nobody.   And what they did to evict [redacted], who put many of tens of thousands of dollars into their unit, was horrific and shameful.

Hyperbolic statements about being a sociopathic narcissist, celebrating making the lives of tenants hell, and claims of engaging in other abhorrent behaviors are not statements of fact. (However, you could accuse a person of having been diagnosed to be a sociopath, and that would be defamatory; you could say something like "As a professional psychiatrist, I find his behavior to be sociopathic", and that would get you sued since it implies a non-existent professional diagnosis). Saying that plaintiff "(likely) contributed to death" is defamatory (slapping on "likely", again, does not sanitize a defamatory statement). Of course, if you can establish that plaintiff did contribute to someone's death, then it's a true statement, not a defamatory one.

The case of Dietz v. Perez is also of some interest, in part because the details are easily available (e.g. the complaint, various exhibits including the online reviews); eventually this went to trial and the jury found that parties had defamed each other, so no damages were awarded.

This is in the context of US law, where the First Amendment provides substantial protection of a person's right to say what they want.

  • Okay, so there's millions of people saying millions of bad things about people and companies every day, so why isn't everyone suing everyone else if it's really that easy to claim something is libel? It seems like you're saying any damaging statement of any kind is actionable even if it's an opinion. How do you know that person is being hyperbolic? What if that other person actual has been diagnosed with some form of sociopathic behavior? How do you know it's not just the opinion that the plaintiff contributed to death? Both statements seem like damaging. – John Joe Jul 16 '18 at 23:22
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    1: usually people hire lawyers to due for defamation, and decent lawyers will filter out the wingnut cases, advising the client that the case has no legal merit. 2: Damaging true statements are not actionable. 3: Special case (requiring a separate question, IMO), it is even harder to prove defamation against a "public figure". 4: As a reader, I don't know whether a reviewer has special knowledge of the facts or is just ranting; the defendant can show that the claim if true, if it comes to trial. – user6726 Jul 17 '18 at 0:13
  • You say "no legal merit" but based on what you've said, a LOT of random wingnut things have legal merit, which means the lawyers are wrong to throw them out. So the distinction is between claiming something is fact, like "this product kills people" and "oh yeah, this product definitely kills people," which from a very specific view is clearly hyperbolic, but it's not guaranteed to be construed that way, and then that's it, that's the only thing that matters is whether the speaker was "serious" or not according to what you say. – John Joe Jul 18 '18 at 8:36
  • The Vogel opinion is one of the funniest things I've read in some time. – Nate Eldredge Sep 16 '18 at 14:20
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From this law dictionary:

Libel and slander are different types of defamatory statements. Libel is a written defamatory statement, and slander is a spoken or oral defamatory statement.

They give examples:

These days, the most common places for making possibly libellous [hence written] statements are:

  • letters to the editor

  • public comments on media (ie newspapers & magazines) web-sites

In reality you won't see too many potentially libellous comments in published written letters to the editor because editors are very careful to screen them out. It is on the internet where people can get into trouble for libel.

For example, if you have posted a comment on someone's blog that the blogs author has been given a dishonourable discharge from the army, that certainly sounds like a defamatory statement, if false.

Remember that truth is an absolute defence to libel and slander.

The above of course is in the capacity of a person as a citizen. The question you are asking is about a company, and there the question becomes more complex due to the question of public interest and also of free speech. There you have a citizen against a company, which might be a multinational with all the resources that a multinational can command. Hence, the public interest defence.

For example, after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke due to investigative work by a reporter(s) with the Guardian, the valuation of Facebook lost a hundred billion dollars pretty much immediately.

It's possible that the law might change in the future to reflect the journalistic standards of newspapers. My guess as to why newspapers are more careful is that are probably liable under the law. At present, platforms such as Facebook loudly proclaim themselves as tech companies and have a libertarian ethic rather than as more socially responsible publishing companies.

Perhaps if we see a change in the law so that they are liable and are seen to be liable for what is published on their platforms they might decide being libertarian ain't quite as cool as they might think it is.

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