“Can Online Reviews Be Defamation Or Slander?”

These days, everyone looks at online reviews, and a lot of people write them. Some reviews are nice, and others are not. A bad review can do damage to a business, and things can get pretty heated when a bad review is left, even if it is warranted.

So what is the law on this? Are online reviews privileged? How can you know if a review exposes the writer to legal liability or not?

First, there is NO special law regarding online reviews. There is no special privilege for writing online reviews.

Second, the laws regarding libel and slander apply. (Libel is in writing, slander is verbal, but they the law is the same for both, and the terms are often used interchangeably.)

So what is the standard? In the most basic sense, it is simply that liability will occur if there is a false statement of fact that damages the person being talked about.

So the key questions are:

1. Is it FALSE?
2. Is it DEFAMATORY?
3. Is if opinion or is it a FACT?

Note that there IS no privilege for posting an incorrect fact that you believe to be true. If that was the law, then everyone accused of slander or defamation would simply state that they THOUGHT the fact was true, but they were wrong, and the matter would be over.

However, if the posting is true, and can be proven to be true, that is a defense to a defamation case.

Is the posting opinion or fact? This can be the trickiest part.

If you post that you didn’t feel like the service you received from a contractor on a house repair was very good and that you didn’t like the quality of the work, that is almost certainly pure opinion. However, if you post that you think the contractor is a thief who stole from your house while working, now you are into the realm of fact and you had better be able to prove that it happened as such a statement is certainly defamatory and damaging. “I didn’t like the ice cream” is quite a different statement than “the ice cream had roach legs sticking out of it.”

You might be asking at this point, if this is the definition of defamation, why aren’t all the people who are posting online getting sued every day? The answer is simple: it’s costly, time consuming, and not all businesses want to take the time to do it. A lot of people prefer to simply move on and try to get good reviews, or dispute the review with the platform that posted it. However, there are cases that are handled every day regarding reviews where this to get serious. It can range for a demand for an apology and a retraction to a full trial where a judge or jury determines if defamation did in fact occur, and if so, how much in damages should be paid.

One area in which reviewers have particularly gotten in trouble is with reviews from people stating they are dissatisfied with a service or product that they never purchased. It has been found by one court in California that such a review is defamatory, even if it is opinion, because it is untrue and fabricated.

I would not be surprised to see legislation and new laws on this in the future, particularly as it makes sense to have a simple system for contesting reviews and removing untruthful ones, but at this time, that does not exist, and the general principles of defamation law apply.

DISCLAIMER: All legal principles quoted are valid as of the date of writing in the State of California. However, you should NEVER base your actions on a legal article, blog, or internet story, as facts in real life are complicated. You should have your case evaluated by an attorney experienced in the area of law needed for your case. In addition, there are often exceptions and potential changes to results that occur due to facts that you may think are trivial or unimportant. This article should not be taken in any way as legal advice on your specific legal matter.

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