Is it Defamatory to Call Someone “Racist”?

In today’s political climate, “racist” is the go-to pejorative in most every conversation. The moment one person feels that they are losing the argument, they call the other a racist. In fact, the use of the term is so common that one court has held that the term has become “meaningless.”

“Accusations of ‘racism’ no longer are ‘obviously and naturally harmful.’ The word has been watered down by overuse, becoming common coin in political discourse.” Kimura v. Vandenberg.

Even outside of politics, “racist” is frequently employed to add extra sting to any criticism. I frequently see Yelp reviews where there is no apparently context for the use of the word, but it is used nonetheless, almost as an afterthought. “Oh, and he is a racist too.”

So, the question presented by this article:

Is it defamatory to call someone “racist”?

As always, we must begin with the elements of the claim. The elements of defamation are: “(a) a publication that is (b) false, (c) defamatory, and (d) unprivileged, and that (e) has a natural tendency to injure or that causes special damage.” Price v. Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3.

However, the second element, falsity, is subject to further clarification. Continue reading

Morris & Stone Case Creates Important Internet Defamation Authority

Super hero with computer circuit

Internet Defamation Law Clarified

Morris & Stone is proud to announce that righteous Internet defamation cases will now be easier to prove, due to a Court of Appeal opinion resulting from one of our cases.

I was brought in as co-counsel to first chair a trial in Santa Cruz, representing an attorney we will refer to as “Esquire”. In addition to her legal practice, Esquire had a business on the side, which was based in some warehouse space. A few years into Esquire’s lease, the warehouse was purchased by someone we will call “Painter”, making Painter Esquire’s landlord.

The problem was, Painter wanted the entire warehouse for his own use, so he made a buy-out offer to Esquire. But Esquire liked the space, and turned down the offer.

Then began what Esquire saw as a harassment campaign, designed to get her to move out. The harassment included fights over parking and jack hammering during business hours. Ultimately, Esquire was forced to go to court to get an injunction against Painter to stop some of the behavior.

The same day the injunction was issued, Esquire received her first negative Yelp review, which was followed by two more. It was clear the reviews were false, because they accused Esquire of poorly performing services that her company did not even offer. By subpoening records from Yelp and then the Internet Service providers, Esquire confirmed that one of the reviews had been posted from Painter’s business account, and two had been posted from his home account.

Judge Ariadne Symons

Continue reading

Slut or Not a Slut, that is the Question

Is calling someone a “slut” defamatory?

I have said in the past that the answer is no, because it is the sort of word that is so imprecise in its definition, that it is simply impossible to show that it is verifiably false. The speaker might think that anyone who engages in pre-marital sex is a slut, or that a woman who wears a skirt less than two inches above her knee is a slut, or whatever.

So a case out of Australia caught my eye, because they are actually trying to create some litmus test to determine what would make one a slut. The case involves one Emma Husar, who is a Federal MP. She is suing BuzzFeed Australia, because it reported that she’s a “slut who boasts about who she has had sex with.”

Here’s where it gets fun.

BuzzFeed is asserting a truth defense, arguing that it can show that Husar flashed a fellow MP, Sharon Stone style, had a relationship with another MP, and engaged in sexualized conduct toward her physiotherapist. In BuzzFeed’s estimation, that makes Husar a slut.

Counsel for Husar, however, is seeking to strike the truth defense, claiming that even if BuzzFeed can prove the listed activities, that would not make Husar a slut.

This is why I love the law.

Here is How You Sue the News for Lying

Is that false news really false?

This is another article that callers have compelled me to write, so that I have a resource I can send them to that explains this important point of law.

We begin with Civil Code section 45, which defines libel:

Libel is a false and unprivileged publication by writing, printing, picture, effigy, or other fixed representation to the eye, which exposes any person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injure him in his occupation.

Thus, as a beginning point, a statement must be verifiably false to be defamatory.

But as the rest of the statute makes clear, falsity is not enough. If I publish an article falsely stating that you own a home in Beverly Hills, I have told a lie about you, but it would not be defamatory or actionable. That is the first point that many people struggle with. They grew up hearing “liar, liar, pants on fire,” and they assume that there must be some remedy against someone who tells a lie. (At a minimum, their pants should combust.)

Such is not the case. Lying about your home in Beverly Hills is not actionable, because that claim does not expose you to “hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injure him in his occupation.” There is simply nothing wrong with owning a home in Beverly Hills.

Now as is always the case in analyzing statements to see if they are defamatory, context is everything. If you were known as the person who swore off all material possessions in order to live with and assist the homeless, and I publish a story falsely claiming you own a home in Beverly Hills, in that context the statement could be defamatory because it amounts to calling you a liar. But the first step in the analysis is to determine if the statement is false, and whether, if taken as true, the statement would subject you to hatred, contempt, etc.

Next comes the part that is at the heart of the article; the issue of what is false. Continue reading

Yelp Wins Fight to Post False and Defamatory Reviews

hassell v. bird

In reading the California Supreme Court’s decision in Hassell v. Bird, which just came out today, an expression by my father-in-law came to mind. He was a real, honest-to-goodness cowboy, and when asked how things were going, he would often answer, “Well, I’m just stepping in cow dung with one boot and knocking it off with the other.” [He didn’t actually use the word “dung.”]With today’s opinion, Yelp temporarily knocked off some dung, but stepped right back in it.

Hassell v. Bird involved an attorney by the name of Dawn Hassell and her firm the Hassell Law Group. Hassell’s April 2013 complaint arose out of Hassell’s legal representation of a client named Ava Bird for a brief period during the summer of 2012. The complaint alleged the following facts about that representation: Bird met with Hassell in July to discuss a personal injury she had recently sustained. On August 20, Bird signed an attorney-client fee agreement. However, on September 13, 2012, Hassell withdrew from representing Bird because they had trouble communicating with her and she expressed dissatisfaction with them. During the 25 days that Hassell represented Bird, Hassell had at least two communications with Allstate Insurance Company about Bird’s injury claim and notified Bird about those communications via e-mail. Hassell also had dozens of direct communications with Bird by e-mail and phone and at least one in-person meeting. Continue reading

No, I Wasn’t Kidding About the Wisdom of Walking Away

Internet Defamation - Take the Settlement Fool

Just two weeks ago I posted comments on the wisdom of taking a walk-away settlement when you are a defendant with no moral high ground in a defamation action.  I told the story of how the defendant in the case I prosecuted was afforded the opportunity to take down the defamatory comments and walk away without paying any damages, rejected it, and now must pay over $200,000 to my client as a result of his hubris.

You’d think that might have at least given the defendant and his counsel in a different case a moment of pause in the trial that followed two weeks later.  My client sued the defendant, who then filed a frivolous cross-complaint, apparently thinking that would give him some leverage.  The parties had discussed settlement throughout the year-long litigation process, but the defendant had always insisted on money coming his way, and there was no way that was going to happen.

Come the day of trial, the judge conducted one final settlement conference, and my client, knowing the defendant doesn’t have much money anyway, graciously offered to just walk away.  There it was; that same moment in time discussed in my last posting, where the defendant is afforded the opportunity to avoid sending his life, or at the very least his finances, in a bad direction.  But the defendant refused and demanded payment of a ridiculous amount of money on his ridiculous claim.  My client declined.

With no settlement, the case proceeded to trial and I called the defendant as my first witness in a trial that both sides had estimated would last three days.  Two hours into my examination, the judge spontaneously announced that he had heard all he needed to hear, and unless defendant had some “miraculous evidence” he was going to find in favor of my client.  In chambers, he said to defense counsel, “Mr. Morris is very methodically cutting your client to pieces.”  He suggested the parties and attorneys talk settlement again.  My client said fine, and said he would dismiss the action in exchange for defendant paying the same ridiculous amount defendant had been demanding.  Defendant agreed, and we set up a ten year payment schedule, non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.  Ouch.

If you got the tie-in between the photo above and the article, give yourself a prize.  It’s from the movie The Road Warrior, and the gentleman in the photo is imploring the people at the oil refinery to “just walk away” and let him and his warriors take the gasoline.  I think I may start dressing like that for settlement conferences.

California Supreme Court Puts Counsel for Yelp Through the Grinder in Hassell v. Bird

The tale of Hassell v. Bird.

I previously published a long article on the case of Hassell v. Bird, and I was invited to file a friend of the court brief in the California Supreme Court after it took up the case.

My original article provides much greater detail, but briefly for purposes of this article, Bird defamed a law firm – the Hassell Law Group – in a Yelp review. Hassell sued Bird, and the court found that the Yelp “review” was false and defamatory, and ordered Bird to take it down. But then comes a twist unique to this case. Knowing that Bird would be unlikely to comply with the order, the court also ordered Yelp to remove the review, even though Yelp had never been a party to the action.

It is not uncommon for court orders to include persons or entities who were not parties to the action, if some action by those third parties is necessary to effectuate the order. In a typical renter eviction action, for example, only the known tenant will be named in the action, but the eviction order will apply to anyone occupying the residence, in case the tenant allowed others to move in, subleased the property, etc.

Here, the trial court felt that it was reasonable to require Yelp to take down the review, even though it was not a party to the action. The review had been deemed to be defamatory, and it was not Yelp’s speech that was being attacked, so certainly Yelp would have no horse in the race. Indeed, presumably Yelp wants the reviews posted on its site to be as truthful as possible, so it should welcome an order that would result in the removal of a false review.

But Yelp’s business model depends on negative reviews, so it cried foul. Even after the Court of Appeal found that the judge’s order was entirely proper, Yelp went to the Supreme Court to fight for the right to publish false and defamatory reviews.

Today, I attended the oral argument held in that case, in front of the seven justices of the California Supreme Court.

It was pretty painful to watch, given the positions counsel for Yelp was forced to defend. Continue reading

Morris & Stone Victory — $200,000 from Defendant Who Failed to See Wisdom of Walking Away

Perhaps because the adrenaline and endorphins flow during a courtroom battle, I become very thoughtful in the calm that follows. I won a small but satisfying court victory recently in an Internet defamation case, and it made me realize how much the process mirrors a scene from a movie.

The movie is Taken. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably saw the scene to which I refer since it was shown in the trailers. The main character, who we come to learn is some sort of retired Über-spy, is on the phone with his teenage daughter when she is kidnapped. He hears the bad guy pick up the phone, and he calmly gives the following speech:

I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know what you want.
If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money.
But what I do have are a very particular set of skills;
skills I have acquired over a very long career.
Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.
If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it.
But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you.

Most every Internet defamation case I handle starts with such a moment. Not nearly so dramatic, of course, and there are no deaths involved if the defendant doesn’t listen to me, but the concept of a choice is the same.

Most of my defamation clients aren’t seeking money initially; they just want the bad guy to stop defaming them. My marching orders are usually just to get the person to take down the false comments. So I write to the bad guy, explaining that this does not need to go any further. He strayed from the path and said and did some things he shouldn’t have, but if he just takes down the posts and walks away, “that will be the end of it.”

That is the moment in time. I am affording the prospective defendant the opportunity to avoid sending his life in a bad direction. I am less of an advocate and more of a caregiver, just trying to convince the patient to stop engaging in self-destructive behavior. But he makes the ultimate decision whether to accept that help, or to continue on his path.

In Taken, the kidnapper could not help himself and responded by saying, “good luck.” He did not take the skill set seriously enough, thinking he would be impossible to find. Today’s defendant also did not take the skill set seriously enough, thinking since he lived across the country we would never pursue him. He was one of a few on-line competitors with my client, and had engaged in some trash-talking that escalated into defamatory comments about my client’s business practices. All he had to do was take down the false statements and walk away and that would have been the end of it. He refused, and today a judge ordered him to take down the false statements, never to make the statements again, at risk of fines and imprisonment, and to pay my client over $200,000.

Pick your battles. I will defend to the death your right to post honest comments on the Internet. If you want to take on a plaintiff that you feel is trying to shake you down, then I’m with you one hundred percent. But don’t get into a court battle just to prove who has the bigger . . . lawyer. The defendant in this case had no moral high ground. He knew what he was saying about my client was untrue, so why on earth wouldn’t he take the opportunity to walk away? As a famous philosopher once sang, “You’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them.”

WHAT TO DO WHEN SOMEONE HAS POSTED A FALSE YELP REVIEW ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS

Since free speech and internet defamation are our primary practice areas, and since it is a rather niche practice, we get many calls and emails from businesses that have been defamed by a false Yelp review. We also get may calls from those who have posted Yelp reviews and have been threatened with legal action, but that is an article for another day. For purposes of his article, I will discuss . . .

WHAT TO DO WHEN SOMEONE HAS POSTED A FALSE YELP REVIEW ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS

I wrote a similar article two years ago, but I want to update and expand on what I said previously, attempting to provide a more all encompassing review of your options when dealing with a false Yelp review.

This only applies to verifiably false and defamatory reviews.

I repeat this message over and over again on this blog, but so as to make this a standalone article, let me express again that if someone writes a critical but honest Yelp review about your business, I won’t help you to get rid of it. Nothing to see here. Move along. The marketplace of ideas is not promoted with defamatory speech, but neither is it promoted with censorship.

Note also that a review isn’t actionable just because it is false. If someone says you graduated from Arizona State University, but you really graduated from the University of Arizona, they have told a lie about you, but it isn’t defamatory because the lie doesn’t (necessarily) cast you in a bad light. Further, the statement must be verifiably false, and can’t be an opinion. If a patient writes that a doctor has a “terrible bedside manner”, that term is too imprecise to ever prove that it is false. It is a matter of opinion.

But a significant percentage of Yelp reviews are false and defamatory. We have rooted out businesses with employees who are tasked with the job of writing false reviews about competitors. Even down to the individual level, it is often the case that someone will have an honest beef with a business, but when it comes time to sit down and write the review, they feel compelled to embellish.

Continue reading

Being a member of a group won’t necessarily give you standing for a defamation claim

Another story illustrating the point I make here over and over, namely, that a statement must accuse you of something before it is defamatory.

Today a Federal Court in New York threw out defamation action against Rolling Stone Magazine. Rolling Stone had published an article about a coed named “Jackie” who contended that she had been raped by seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in September 2012.

Three members of that fraternity — George Elias IV, Stephen Hadford and Ross Fowler — sued for defamation, claiming that the article implied that there was an initiation ritual that required new members to rape a coed. The plaintiffs were not named or identified in the article, but since they were members of the fraternity, they alleged that was enough to cause them humiliation and emotional distress.

When the police later investigated, they could find no support for Jackie’s story, and Rolling Stone eventually retracted the story.

Claims of this sort are often too attenuated. In the first place, the judge concluded that “Viewed in the overall context of the article, the quotes cannot reasonably be construed to state or imply that the fraternity enforced a rape requirement as part of an initiation ritual or a pre-condition for membership.” But equally problematic, if the article does not mention any of the plaintiffs by name, then how can they claim that it accuses them of rape? Even it the article left no doubt that the fraternity has such a requirement, perhaps these individuals refused to participate.

The fraternity itself might have a good claim, and if the membership is small enough that a reasonable argument could be made that it damaged the reputation of these three members, then they could have a claim as well.

By way of example, I once received a call from a police officer, wanting to sue for defamation based on what a newspaper had said about the police officers in his community. He was fed up with all the cop bashing, and he never commits the acts that the article attributes to all police, so he wanted to sue.

Context is everything. If the article stated that “every police officer on the Springfield police department is guilty of using excess force,” then the argument could be made that it is directed at this individual officer. But if the article stated that “more police officers on the Springfield police department are guilty of using excess force than any other department,” then it can’t reasonably be argued that the statement identifies any particular officers. Simply stated, your membership in a group won’t be sufficient basis to support a defamation claim, unless the publication specifically states or implies that you committed the acts. Absent extraordinary circumstances, being a member of a group won’t give you standing for a defamation claim.

Ironically and tragically, the frat members probably caused far more damage to themselves than the Rolling Stone article ever would have. The attorney for these fraternity members should have explained what would result from this action. Had the members done nothing, then at worst, in the future when they mentioned that they were former members of this fraternity, they might on very rare occasions have been met with the question, “Isn’t that the frat that has a rape ritual?” They could have answered, “Rolling Stone published a crazy story about that, but it was false, and the magazine later apologized.” Now, they have forever attached their names to this story, and future prospective employers who do an internet search for their names will be presented with this rape story.

[UPDATE – June 13, 2017]  Rolling Stone agreed to settle an action brought by the fraternity for $1.65 million. The frat has originally demanded $25 million, but settled for this lesser amount, giving “a significant portion” of the proceeds to charities related to fighting sexual assault.

[UPDATE – September 19, 2017]  The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of the action brought by fraternity members George Elias IV, Ross Fowler, and Stephen Hadford, finding that, given the small membership of the fraternity, they may be able to successfully show that the Rolling Stone article individually damaged their reputations.

Aaron Morris

Morris & Stone, LLP

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Tustin, CA 92780

(714) 954-0700

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View Aaron Morris, Trial Attorney and Partner at Morris & Stone, with emphasis on Free Speech and Defamation Law.

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