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Not Happy? Go on the Internet and Complain – it’s OK

Negative, insulting Internet postings are mere opinions, and so are protected speech, not slander.

Parties in a family law dispute often go to Facebook or other places on the Internet and post complaints about the other party. Courts are reluctant to allow the insulted party to file slander or libel suits, even when the posts are wrong.

Darren and Nicole made a baby together, but very quickly disagreed. Her family became involved, and Wendy (Nicole’s mother) posted some very insulting statements on a consumer website, saying that he is diseased, a pimp, a fraud, a deadbeat dad and a sociopath, among other things. Darren sued, but the trial court dismissed his suit under California’s SLAPP law (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).

He appealed, but the appeals court upheld the dismissal. The court first said that the Internet is clearly a “public forum,” where matters of public interest were discussed. It then said that rather than being factual statements, “The overall thrust of the comments attributed is that [Darren] is a dishonest and scary person. This overall appraisal of [Darren] is on its face nothing more than a negative, but non-actionable opinion.” “The statements posted … about [Darren’s] character and business practices plainly fall within in the rubric of consumer information about [his] business and were intended to serve as a warning to consumers about his trustworthiness.”

In other words, Wendy can say she doesn’t like Darren and that she thinks he’s a jerk (and much worse) all she likes. As long as it is reasonably clear that she is giving an opinion rather than reporting specific facts, Darren cannot sue her for it. Some defamatory statements she would have to avoid are listed in Civil Code Section 46, such as (1) saying someone is or was a criminal, (2) saying the person has “an infectious, contagious, or loathsome disease,” (3) saying the person is unqualified in his business or otherwise hurting the business, or (4) saying the person is impotent or suffering from “a want of chastity [!]”.

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