You might think name-calling is a tactic best left on the playground, but on the Web it's alive and well, and it may be perfectly legal. In February, a Los Angeles judge dismissed a suit brought on by Newport Beach, Calif.-based telecommunications company Global Telemedia International Inc. against anonymous defendants who criticized the company on Raging Bull, a financial message-board site.
Judge David O. Carter ruled in Global Telemedia International vs. Does that the defendants' postings constituted opinion, not fact, and therefore were exempt from libel laws. He wrote that the statements are "full of hyperbole, invective, short-hand phrases, and language not generally found in fact-based documents, such as corporate press releases or SEC filings." Decide for yourself: "This company has put it up your arse again with no filing no nothin' (sic) no chance to buy it off shore on international exchanges," was one posting Carter cited.
The decision sets an important legal precedent and should protect chat-room posters from future lawsuits. "It sets a huge precedent," says Steve Jones, professor and head of communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and founder of the Association of Internet Researchers. "It's a pretty clear decision that online speech does have its privileges."
While some businesses may hold off from pursuing legal action because of this decision, Jones predicts that we may see even more such cases in the near future, since the only way to determine if an online post is a statement of opinion or fact is on a case-by-case basis.
Jones also suggests the GTMI case may create a chain reaction of decisions in Internet cases. "A few years ago, the case would have bounced around and settled without a decision," Jones says. "[Carter's ruling] shows increased confidence to make decisions regarding the Internet." Now Internet users should be able to speak up with more confidence, too.