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Online Reviews Protected Speech, Appellate Court Rules

Submitted by Amaris Elliott-Engel on Sun, 03/20/2016 - 14:09

The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled that a negative review of a wedding venue is protected by the First Amendment. In doing so, the court also set precedent for how to distinguish whether speech is protected opinion or a defamatory assertion of fact.

Justice Richard C. Baldwin, writing for the court, applied a Ninth Circuit test in Unelko Corp v. Rooney: "whether a reasonable factfinder could conclude that an allegedly defamatory statement touching on a matter of public concern implies an assertion of objective fact and is therefore not constitutionally protected." The Oregon Supreme Court set out a three-part test to answer that question: 1) whether the general tenor of the entire publication negates the impression that the defendant was asserting an objective fact; 2) whether the defendant used figurative or hyperbolic language that negates that impression; and 3) whether the statement in question is susceptible of being proved true or false.

The defendant was a wedding guest who made a negative review of the venue on Google Reviews, including complaining that the owners were rude, the owners made wedding guests leave 45 minutes early and that the bridal suite was "'a tool shed that was painted pretty.'"

The case is only the second time that the Oregon Supreme Court has applied the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., which held that, in determining whether a defamatory statement is constitutionally protected, it must be decided if a reasonable factfinder could conclude that the statement implies an assertion of objective fact about the plaintiff. The Oregon Supreme Court decided to follow the Ninth Circuit's test in Unelko and found that the review did not imply an assertion of objective fact and instead was an opinion on a matter of public concern. 

The trial court struck down the wedding venue's defamation lawsuit under Oregon's anti-SLAPP law, but the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed.