Biegel v. Norberg -- Chilling On-Line Reviews?

Yelp is based in San Francisco and is viewed there as a favored son for some reason. When someone dares to challenge Yelp or its postings, many of our Northern California neighbors get exercised. I received several calls from media outlets over the past couple of days, seeking comment on the case of Steven Biegel v. Christopher Norberg, an Internet defamation case involving Yelp.com.

The simple facts are these. Norberg was treated by Biegel, a Chiropractor. Norberg was told the treatment would cost a certain amount if he was paying for it out of his own pocket, but his insurance company was allegedly billed at a much higher rate. Although a common practice, since health care providers and insurance companies are free to enter into whatever arrangements they please, this apparently bothered Norberg, so he posted a review on Yelp.com, giving Biegel just one star and questioning the honesty of his billing practices. When Biegel complained about the review, Norberg replaced it with a new entry, accusing Biegel of attempting to harass him into silence. Biegel then responded by suing Norberg for defamation. The trial is set for March 2009.

Note that Yelp is not being sued, only the person that actually posted the allegedly defamatory statements. Nonetheless, many are bothered by such a lawsuit, concerned that it will have a chilling effect on the willingness of people to post their views on sites such as Yelp.com and Citysearch.com. Some have suggested to me that just as the website is immune from liability for anything said by visitors, that immunity should be extended to the visitors as well.

I fought at the forefront of cases involving the Communications Decency Act, which shields website operators from liability for the comments of others, because that limitation makes infinite sense. We would not have open forums and dialog on the Internet if the website operators had to fact check every comment posted.

But on the issue of whether those who post the comments should be protected, I find myself cast as the curmudgeon, seeking to stifle freedom of speech. Here is how the San Francisco Chronicle quoted me:

“Sites that are seemingly well intended are turning into wastelands of defamatory and unspecified allegations,” said Aaron Morris, a partner with Morris & Stone LLP in Orange County who is not involved in the case. “There needs to be some sort of blowback against unfettered speech. People should be able to go on and say, ‘That’s not a true statement about me, and I need to be able to attack this.’ “

If everyone played nice, review sites would not be a problem. But they don’t. Suits against those who post defamatory statements won’t chill free speech, but they will chill defamatory speech, and that’s a good thing. You see, those seemingly helpful reviews you are reading on line are being gamed big time, and there must be a means to fight back. I receive calls every day from businesses that are being falsely trashed by competitors. In one case it was discovered that a company had employed a full time defamer (my designation, not theirs), whose job was to spend all day every day, creating false identities in order to post false reviews, blogs and websites about competitors. I’d love to say that it will all come out in the wash --  that a good business will receive enough good reviews to override the false statements -- but that is not the case. Whereas a legitimate reviewer will post their remarks and go about their business, these professional defamers utilize SEO methods to move the defamatory blogs and websites to the top of the heap.  Honest reviews don’t stand a chance against the bogus ones.

So what about the Norbergs of the world, who just want to post their comments without fear of legal action? Yes, the target of the criticism can file an action, but he will pay a heavy price if the posting was not defamatory. The poster can first respond with a simple anti-SLAPP motion, which stops everything including discovery and allows the court to determine whether the speech was protected and whether the plaintiff has a chance of prevailing. If the motion is granted, the plaintiff pays all of the poster’s attorney fees. He’ll then come to me, and we’ll file a SLAPP BACK action, suing the prior plaintiff for malicious prosecution, winning the poster millions of dollars (individual results may vary). Now who is chilled?

[Update]  After all the attention this case received, the ending, like so many cases, was rather anti-climatic. The parties settled and the offending post was replaced by a new conciliatory post by Norberg.