FREE SPEECH WIN IN OREGON SUPREME COURT

Opposite ruling would have been EPIC FAIL, letting businesses SLAPP citizens into bankruptcy

Court reverses a terrible decision by the lower court that let a business’s SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) proceed against a wedding guest who posted a negative review.
 
Case affirms that Oregon’s strong anti-SLAPP statute protects people posting negative Internet reviews from bankrupting attacks by the businesses subject to the negative reviews.
 
“We conclude that the online review at issue in this case is entitled to First Amendment protection. We therefore reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals to the contrary.”
 
In a well-written and well-reasoned opinion written by Justice Baldwin, the Oregon Supreme Court gave Oregonians a great victory early this month when the seven justices who heard the appeal unanimously agreed to throw out a terrible decision the Oregon Court of Appeals issued after the business appealed the trial court’s ruling in favor of the citizen. Had the Court of Appeals decision been allowed to stand, corporations in Oregon would have been unleashed and given the ability to use defamation suits to grind into bankruptcy anyone who posted a negative review of the business on the Internet.
 
The Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Neumann v Liles, found in Volume 358 of the Oregon Reports, starting on page 706, was issued on 3 March 2016 [358 Or 706 (2016)].
 
The case was so important that a lengthy group of mainstream press organizations submitted a joint “Friends of Court” (amici curiae in Latin) brief to the Supreme Court. Such briefs are often influential in helping an appeals court see and understand the real-world consequences of a decision, which the parties to the dispute often are not concerned with. The groups joining the amicus brief were Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Willamette Week, Gannett Co., Inc., KPTV, Oregon Association of Broadcasters, Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, Oregon Public Broadcasting, The Oregonian Media Group, and The Bulletin of Bend.

Excerpts from the opinion explains the case and the result. First the court identifies the players and the basis for the appeal:

Plaintiff  Carol  Neumann  (Neumann)  is  an  owner of  plaintiff  Dancing  Deer  Mountain,  LLC  (Dancing  Deer Mountain),  a  business  that  arranges  and  performs  wedding events at a property owned by Neumann. Defendant, Christopher Liles (Liles), was a wedding guest who attended a  wedding  and  reception  held  on  Neumann’s  property  in June 2010. Two days after those events, Liles posted a negative  review  about  Neumann  and  her  business  on  Google Reviews,  a  publicly  accessible  website  where  individuals may  post  comments  about  services  or  products  they  have received.

The review was entitled, “Disaster!!!!! Find a different wedding venue,” and stated:

“There are many other great places to get married, this is not  that  place! The worst wedding  experience  of  my  life! The location is beautiful the problem is the owners. Carol (female owner) is two faced, crooked, and was rude to multiple guest[s]. I was only happy with one thing. It was  a beautiful wedding, when it wasn’t raining and Carol and Tim stayed away. The owners did not make the rules clear to the people helping with set up even when they saw something they didn’t like they waited until the day of the wedding to bring it up. They also changed the rules as they saw fit. We were told we had to leave at 9pm, but at 8:15 they started telling  the  guests  that  they  had  to  leave  immediately. The ‘bridal  suite’ was a tool shed  that was painted pretty, but a shed all the same. In my opinion [s]he will find a why [sic] to keep your $500 deposit, and will try to make you pay even more.”

A few months later, Neumann and Dancing Deer Mountain filed a defamation claim for damages against Liles. Liles then filed a special motion to strike under ORS 31.150, Oregon’s Anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (anti-SLAPP) statute.

Although the trial court rightly dismissed the SLAPP suit, the Court of Appeals reversed, putting Liles in peril of being bankrupted by the legal fees necessary to defend himself against Dancing Deer’s suit. Luckily, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Liles’s appeal and knew how to read the First Amendment:

“We allowed Liles’s petition for review to determine how an actionable statement of fact is distinguished from a constitutionally protected expression of opinion in a defamation claim and whether the context in which a statement is made affects that analysis.”

Initially, we conclude that, if false, several of Liles’s statements are capable of a defamatory meaning. Throughout his review, Liles ascribed to Neumann conduct that is incompatible with the proper conduct of a wedding venue operator and, as the Court of Appeals noted, “inconsistent with a positive wedding experience.”
 
As a result, a reasonable factfinder could conclude that Liles’s statements were defamatory if he or she found that the statements were false. . . . Moreover, because, if false, Liles’s defamatory statements were written and published—and therefore libelous—they are actionable per se.
 
The question remains, however, whether they are nevertheless
protected under the First Amendment.
 
To resolve that question, we must first determine, by examining the content, form, and context of Liles’s statements, whether those statements involve matters of public concern.
 
Neumann has not disputed that Liles’s statements involve matters of public concern, and we readily conclude that they do. Liles’s review was posted on a publicly accessible website, and the content of his review related to matters of general interest to the public, particularly those members of the public who are in the market for a wedding venue.
 
Next, we must determine whether a reasonable factfinder could interpret Liles’s statements as implying assertions of objective fact.
 
Applying the three-part inquiry that we articulated above, we first consider whether the general tenor of the entire work negates the impression that Liles was asserting objective facts about Neumann. From the outset, it is apparent that the review is describing Liles’s personal view of Neumann’s wedding venue, calling it a “Disaster!!!!!”
 
The general tenor of the piece, beginning with the word “Disaster,” is that, in Liles’s subjective opinion, the services were grossly inadequate and that the business was poorly operated. However, read independently, two sentences in the review could create the impression that Liles was asserting an objective fact:
 
“Carol (female owner) is two faced, crooked, and was rude to multiple guest[s]. * * * In my opinion [s]he will find a [way] to keep your $500 deposit, and will try to make you pay even more.”
 
Standing alone, those statements could create the impression that Liles was asserting the fact that Neumann had wrongfully kept a deposit that she was not entitled to keep. In the context of the entire review, however, those sentences do not leave such an impression.
 
Rather, the review as a whole reveals that Liles was an attendee at the wedding in question and suggests that he did not himself purchase wedding services from Neumann. The general tenor of the review thus reflects Liles’s negative personal and subjective impressions and reactions as a guest at the venue and negates the impression  that Liles was asserting objective facts.
 
We next consider whether Liles used figurative or hyperbolic language that negates the impression that he was asserting objective facts. Although the general tenor of the review reveals its hyperbolic nature more clearly than do the individual statements contained therein, several statements can be characterized as hyperbolic. In particular, the title of the review—which starts with the word “Disaster” and is  followed by a histrionic series of exclamation marks — is hyperbolic and sets the tone for the review.
 
The review also includes the exaggerative statements that this was “The worst wedding experience of [Liles’s] life!” and that Liles was “only happy with one thing” about the wedding. Such hyperbolic expressions further negate any impression that Liles was asserting objective facts.

Finally, we consider whether Liles’s review is susceptible of being proved true or false. As discussed, Liles’s statements generally reflect a strong personal viewpoint as a guest at the wedding venue, which renders them not susceptible of being proved true or false.
 
Again, the sentences quoted above referring to Neumann as “crooked” and stating that, “[i]n my opinion [s]he will find a [way] to keep your $500 deposit, and will try to make you pay even more” could, standing alone, create the impression that Liles was asserting facts about Neumann. However, viewed in the context of the remainder of the review, those statements are not provably false. The general reference to Neumann as “crooked” is not a verifiable accusation that Neumann committed a specific crime.
 
Moreover, in light of the hyperbolic tenor of the review, the use of the word “crooked” does not suggest that Liles was seriously maintaining that Neumann had, in fact, committed a crime.
 
Similarly, Liles’s statement that “[i]n my opinion [Neumann] will find a [way] to keep your $500 deposit, and will try to make you pay even more” is not susceptible of being proved true or false. That statement is explicitly prefaced with the words, “In my opinion” — thereby alerting the reader to the fact that what follows is a subjective viewpoint. Of course, those words alone will not insulate an otherwise factual assertion from liability. However, given that Liles—as a mere guest at the wedding—presumably did not pay the deposit for the wedding involved in this case, his speculation that Neumann would try to keep a couple’s deposit is not susceptible of being proved true or false.
 
Based on the foregoing factors, we conclude that a reasonable factfinder could not conclude that Liles’s review implies an assertion of objective fact. Rather, his review is an expression of opinion on matters of public concern that is protected under the First Amendment.
 
We therefore further conclude that the trial court did not err in dismissing Neumann’s claim, and we reverse the Court of Appeals determination to the contrary.