Some internet reviews do cross the line

A while back, I pointed out that a court had rejected a defamation claim based on an angry Ripoff Report posting. The court said that those sites tend to attract angry people so most readers know to take anything posted in them with several grains of salt.

But, another court chimed in, sometimes there’s just not enough salt in the shaker. A San Francisco man named Andreas Papaliolios posted in a Yelp review that his former landlords’ obnoxious behavior had likely caused the deaths of three people in the building, had caused several long-term residents to move out shortly after buying it, and had tried to evict several others. The landlords had evidence that none of this was true; instead, two of the three tenants who had supposedly died were still alive and the only person they had tried to evict was Mr. Papaliolios. All of those statements, the court held, could be defamatory. (But calling one new owner a “sociopathic narcissist” was okay.)

How to distinguish acceptable exaggerated criticism from unacceptable libel? The court pointed out that Yelp, unlike sites Ripoff Report or Craigslist’s Rants and Raves, invites more nuanced reviews. It also noted that Mr. Papaliolios had vouched for the accuracy of his statements in his review.

Fairness to Mr. Papaliolios requires pointing out that no court or jury has said that he indeed had defamed his landlords. Instead, this court held only that a jury could find that he defamed them if it believed them and not him.

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