by Paul Alan Levy
The Appellate Division in New York has today affirmed the denial of a pre-litigation petition brought by Woodbridge Structured Funding seeking to compel Opinion Corp. to provide identifying information about the authors of two critical consumer reviews on its Pissed Consumer site.
Represented by Ron Coleman, Opinion Corp. invoked the First Amendment’s protection for anonymous speech and the consensus requirement that would-be plaintiffs be required to present evidence in support of their claims, but the appeals court decided the case instead on the purely state-law ground that the consumer reviews lacked defamatory meaning.
The opinion is quite short, as is common in that court, but the implications sweep quire broadly because they suggest a healthy skepticism about the proposition that consumer reviews are proper fodder for a defamation lawsuit. The court said that the overall impression conveyed by the reviews is not of objectively verifiable factual statements; rather, “viewed in context, they suggest to a reasonable reader that the writer was a dissatisfied customer who utilized respondent's consumers' grievance website to express an opinion.” The court acknowledged that “some of the statements are based on undisclosed, unfavorable facts known to the writer,’ but stresses instead that “the disgruntled tone, anonymous posting, and predominant use of statements that cannot be definitively proven true or false, supports the finding that the challenged statements are only susceptible of a non-defamatory meaning, grounded in opinion.”
The underlying statements as issue can be accessed here.