One of the great things about having free speech in the USA is that opinions are protected speech. That means that if you don’t like what someone thinks about you, too bad. This also can be one of the worst things about free speech for some people and businesses.
This law extends to websites that encourage you to gripe about others. In most cases, you can’t file a lawsuit against a website for publishing bad reviews of your business, even if they hurt your bottom line. Most of what readers write is their opinion, and website operators are protected from being sued over what people post in the comments section.
The travel website TripAdvisor was recently sued, for $10 million (which appears to be a random number that someone made up in alleging harm), in connection with some bad reviews. The site had used consumer reviews to put together a ranking of “dirtiest hotels,” and the hotel owner who sued was at the top of the list. He claimed it hurt his business and his reputation, and it probably did. In the end, however, TripAdvisor wasn’t legally responsible for any harm caused. In fact, the court didn’t even let the lawsuit go forward.
The main reason the lawsuit failed is what we mentioned above – opinion. Also, readers aren’t stupid. Just because the rankings make a conclusion about the “dirtiest hotel” doesn’t mean people are going to believe that it is literally the dirtiest hotel. People know it’s based on the opinions of others. There are thousands of top 10 lists on the internet, and people know that they aren’t always based on hard facts.
Generally, defamation is when someone publishes something false that hurt another’s reputation or business. Proving that whatever you said or wrote is just your opinion is often a successful defense. After all, it can’t really be false if it’s an opinion. Many people try and sue for defamation when something bad comes to light about them. Occasionally they win, but they’re up against the competing interests of free speech, the public good that comes from sharing information, and tough standards when it comes to proving, and winning, a defamation case.
As a result, website operators tend to be protected from lawsuits based on what readers write on their site. Imagine what it would be like if websites were responsible for every comment and review. They’d probably delete half of what people write, and consumer opinion websites would be useless.
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