Calling Someone a “Terrorist” Online Is Non-Actionable Opinion–LeBlanc v. Skinner

16 12 2012

By Eric Goldman

LeBlanc v. Skinner, 2012 WL 6176900 (N.Y.A.D. Dec. 12, 2012)

The plaintiff accuses the defendants of posting the following statements at blogs and newspaper websites:

* “We all know who was behind the Horse Head . . . there is only one man around town dumb enough, violent enough and with a vendetta to do that . . . Dave LeBlanc . . . I hope all this negative publicity on him destroys his business.”
* “Dave LeBlanc is a terrorist”
* “Who was the one who threw the horse head in Gail’s pool . . . check it out: . . .”

There is even more intrigue as the co-defendants are pointing fingers at each other. Aunt and uncle accuse their nephew of making the posts; the nephew claims he was the aunt/uncle’s agent and they directed him to make the posts. This implicates some potentially interesting 47 USC 230 issues that aren’t explored (compare this 2008 case where a wife typed her husband’s comments).

The court says the “terrorist” epithet was “rhetorical hyperbole.” The court continues:

This conclusion is especially apt in the digital age, where it has been commented that readers give less credence to allegedly defamatory Internet communications than they would to statements made in other milieus.

Either way, there is now an impressive body of precedent holding that people don’t interpret online name-calling literally. See, e.g., Seldon v. Compass Restaurant, Chaker v. Mateo, Sandals v. Google (cited here), DiMeo v. Max, Finkel v. Dauber and others. I wish this meant that plaintiffs will think twice about suing over online name-calling, but I doubt it.

Still, the news isn’t all good for the defendants. The court says it’s defamatory per se to assert that someone put a severed horse head in someone’s pool, so it reserves dismissal of that claim.


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