Thursday, January 20, 2011

Anonymous Online Defamation: Fighting Back to Protect Yourself & Your Business

With the explosion of social media, businesses and individuals are becoming daily victims of anonymous online defamation. With tools like Twitter and Topix, now everyone has a megaphone to say whatever they want to the widest possible audience. Many say this is freedom of speech at its best. But as with anything, this freedom comes at a high price.

Putting bloggers on equal footing with traditional journalism has many upsides, but now we are beginning to see the downsides, as well. Online reviews of restaurants and movies, for example, are often helpful. Generally, those reviews state opinions rather than facts, such as: “This movie was terrible,” or “This restaurant has the best food.” Opinion cannot constitute defamation. But websites today also allow patients to review doctors, students to review teachers, and customers to review everything from i-Pads to car repair service. When these reviews include untrue facts, they may constitute defamation. For example, a review expressing a diner’s opinion about how food tastes is mere opinion and does not constitute defamation, but a review claiming that a restaurant had a health department rating of 65 when the actual rating was 97 is an untrue fact that likely could serve as the basis of a defamation claim.

Sometimes the negative comments are minor and the best advice is to brush them off. But other times the comments are serious and deserve a stronger response, such as when they indicate you committed scandalous or criminal conduct, that you are untrustworthy, or that you have committed malpractice. These comments can damage your reputation and harm you economically if they steer business away from you. When that happens, especially if it happens more than once from the same person, you may have grounds to assert a claim of business interference, and not just defamation.

One of the biggest challenges with the Web 2.0 is the fact that most online reviews and comments are made anonymously. If that’s the case, how can you protect yourself? How can you even find out the identity of the poster?

Fortunately, victims are not without recourse. Most people think that they can say whatever they want online and that no one will ever know who said it. This is incorrect. There are ways to find out the identity of online posters, but you need to act quickly since Internet service providers (ISPs) often destroy records of online activity after 180 days.

If you find that you are the victim of disparaging comments made online, you won’t get very far suing the website that hosts the comments (known as user generated comment or “UGC”). Hosting websites are immune from liability related to UGC under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. But you can have your attorney send a cease & desist letter to the website demanding that the comments be removed. Sometimes websites comply; other times their terms & conditions do not allow them to comply without a court order.

When you want to find the identity of the anonymous poster, and not just have the comments removed, you can also file a “John Doe” lawsuit against unknown defendants, empowering you to subpoena the host website for the IP address of the person posting the comments. From there, you can determine the ISP. Because the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 prohibits ISPs from disclosing personally identifying information about Internet users to non-governmental entities without a court order, the next step is to obtain a court order allowing you to subpoena the ISP for the identity of the poster. Recently, a court in Nashville refused to allow an anonymous poster to hide his identity, and allowed the victim to move forward with its subpoena of the ISP.

Finally, responding to anonymous online defamation often requires a multi-faceted approach. Recently, one of my business clients found several comments online that accused its employee of criminal and scandalous conduct. Given the context, the client needed legal advice on not just the social media issues, above, but also with employment law issues. If defamatory comments are made that threaten to damage your reputation and your business, don’t just sit back and take it. Instead, consider your options in fighting back.

© Stephen J. Zralek 2011


  1. Great interview and event! Thanx Debra

    The Top Lawsuits Of 2013
    by Steve Kaplan
    December 20, 2013

    Never Shout "He's a Tool!" On a Crowded Website?

    Dr. David McKee, a Duluth neurologist, was not laughing when he saw what one former client wrote about him on a doctor-rating website. The reviewer, Dennis Laurion, complained that McKee made statements that he interpreted as rude and quoted a nurse who had called the doctor “a real tool.” As these statements echoed through the Internet, McKee felt his reputation was being tarnished. He sued, and so began a four-year journey that ended this year in the Minnesota Supreme Court.

    Laurion was unhappy with the way McKee treated his father, who was brought to the doctor after he had a stroke. Laurion went to several rate-your-doctor sites to give his opinion. That’s just free speech, isn’t it?

    It sure is, says Laurion’s attorney, John D. Kelly of the Duluth firm Hanft Fride. “The court held that what my client was quoted as saying was not defamatory,” he says. “I do think the Internet makes it much easier for persons exercising poor judgment to broadcast defamatory statements, however… a medium… doesn’t change the quality of a statement from non-defamatory to defamatory.”

    But McKee’s lawyer, Marshall Tanick, of Hellmuth & Johnson, says no matter where it was said, defamation is defamation. “The thing that’s often misunderstood is that this was not just about free speech, but about making actual false statements,” Tanick says. “The problem is today’s unfettered opportunity to express opinion, whether or not the substance of what’s said is true or not. We need some boundaries.”

    But boundaries were not on the minds of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Free speech was. Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote, “The point of the post is, ‘This doctor did not treat my father well.’ I can’t grasp why that wouldn’t be protected opinion.” As to referring to the doctor as “a real tool,” Justice Alan Page wrote that the insult “falls into the category of pure opinion because the term … cannot be reasonably interpreted as a fact and it cannot be proven true or false.”

    The takeaway from this case might be the knowledge that behind any rating service lie real people with real feelings. McKee spent more than $60,000 in the effort to clear his name, as he saw it. Dennis Laurion told the Star Tribune he spent the equivalent of two years’ income, some of which he had to borrow from relatives who supplied the money by raiding their retirement funds.

    See rest of article:

  3. Insult And Injury: How Doctors Are Losing The War Against Trolls
    BuzzFeed – Jake Rossen

    David McKee, M.D., a Duluth, Minn., neurologist, was unaware of the Streisand phenomenon at the time he decided to sue Dennis Laurion. Laurion’s father, Kenneth, had suffered a stroke in April 2010; McKee was called in to assess Kenneth’s condition.

    According to the Laurions, McKee was oblivious to Kenneth’s modesty. “His son was right there,” McKee counters. “If he was concerned about the gown, he didn’t get out of his chair to tie it.”

    Dennis Laurion consulted with his family to see if his impression of the arrogant doctor was real or imagined. He fired off a dozen or more letters to a variety of medical institutions, including the hospital’s ombudsman, the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice, Medicare, and the American Medical Association.

    McKee sued Laurion for defamation. A local Duluth newspaper picked up on the story, favoring Laurion’s interpretation of events.

    In April 2011, the judge granted Laurion’s motion for summary judgment, ruling his comments were protected free speech. A user on posted the newspaper story. Almost overnight, dozens of “reviews” popped up on and other sites with outlandish commentary on McKee, who was referred to as “the dickface doctor of Duluth.”

    McKee found no easy way to exit the situation. “You get drawn in,” he says, suggesting his lawyer nudged him into further action. “It’s throwing good money after bad. … I wanted out almost as soon as I got in, and it was always, ‘Well, just one more step.’” McKee appealed, and the summary judgment was overturned. The case, and the measurable impact of being labeled a “real tool,” was now headed for the Minnesota Supreme Court.

    McKee was rated for several years as a top provider in Duluth Superior Magazine, but “From now until the end of time, I’ll be the jerk neurologist who was rude to a World War II veteran,” the physician says. “I’m stuck with it forever.”

    Full article:


    Dr. David McKee’s defamation lawsuit recently came up again because BuzzFeed posted an article entitled “Insult And Injury: How Doctors Are Losing The War Against Trolls.” I tweeted a link to that article, and Dennis Laurion, whose father was the patient in the Minnesota, case wrote to me.

    Correspondence of Skeptical Scalpel and Dennis K. Laurion:

    [Scalpel] I very much appreciate your email and the clarification of your situation. I hope you realize that I personally took no side in the dispute you had with Dr. McKee.

    [Laurion] Thanks, Doctor, for the courtesy of your reply. I do realize that you just tweeted the existence of the article.

    [Scalpel] Most of the stories about your case tended to sympathize with the doctor and, his defamation suit brought far more attention to him and his behavior than if he had simply let it go. Is the litigation completely over?

    [Laurion] Yes. For a while, the plaintiff threatened in settlement demands, to sue me for 500+ remarks made on His “proof” was that most of the remarks came from Duluth, and I live in Duluth; he also lives and works in Duluth. He threatened to subpoena IP numbers and sue every poster, presumably all my relatives and friends, if I didn’t settle. I hadn’t posted to Reddit, I don’t know anybody who did, and nobody ever asked my ISP for my IP number or browsing history.

    [Scalpel] Did you win the case?

    [Laurion] I won dismissal from the Minnesota Supreme Court; he won the right to make me spend $56K I didn’t have. Minnesota allows “hip pocket lawsuits.” The plaintiff served me but didn’t file in court. He almost immediately asked my insurance company for a settlement, apology, and confidentiality agreement. This lawsuit was apparently supposed to last 3 weeks and never be filed in court; however, my insurance company doesn’t offer me defamation coverage, and I filed my reply through the court, putting the suit into public record and the attention of newspapers.

    [Scalpel] Do you have any recourse as far as say, counter-suing Dr. McKee?

    [Laurion] No. In Minnesota, each party is responsible for their own legal fees. Dr. McKee had to reimburse me about $2000 of filing fees and printing costs. I’d have contemplated a suit for abuse of process, but the Appellate Court’s decision not to dismiss tended to dilute my complaint.

    [Scalpel] Are you familiar with strategic lawsuit against public participation lawsuits? If I recall correctly, your case took place in Minnesota which has an anti-SLAPP law.

    [Laurion] I wanted my lawyer to file a SLAPP motion, but Minnesota SLAPP law only applies to actions that are wholly or in part government petitions. The plaintiff’ only charged me for my internet rating site reviews and mention of my letter to the Medicare Ombudsman, the County Health Department, or the Minnesota Board of Medical Review; however, my comments to those sources were quoted in briefs and newspaper comments.


    Skeptical Scalpel is a retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He blogs at and tweets as @SkepticScalpel.

  5. UW-Whitewater professor sues student over postings

    By Associated Press 22 May 2014

    A University of Wisconsin-Whitewater professor is suing a former graduate student who posted online comments and videos that the teacher considers defamatory.

    Anthony Llewellyn took a class last year from communications professor Sally Vogl-Bauer, but the experience didn't go well.

    Llewellyn posted comments on professor-rating sites accusing the teacher of criticizing his academic abilities, grading him unfairly and causing him to fail out of school. He said he spoke with her in April about his concerns, two months before he was told he had failed her class.

    Vogl-Bauer contends the comments amount to defamation, while Llewellyn says his goal was simply to inform the public about how the professor treated him.

    Tim Edwards, the attorney representing Vogl-Bauer, said the comments could be especially damaging to someone in a small professional community. He said he and Vogl-Bauer agree that students should be allowed to express their opinions, "but when you go so far beyond that, into a concerted effort to attack somebody's reputation because things didn't go your way, that's much different."
    Edwards and Vogl-Bauer asked Llewellyn to take down his online comments and videos. They filed the lawsuit after he refused.

    Llewellyn said it's important for the videos and comments to stay online so the public can remain informed.

    It's not clear how successful the lawsuit will be, but a similar case in Minnesota ended with a ruling in favor of the person who posted the online rating. In the case (David McKee MD vs Dennis Laurion), a doctor took offense when a patient's son went on a rate-your-doctor website and called him "a real tool," slang for stupid or foolish. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in January 2013 that the comment wasn't defamatory because it was an opinion protected by free-speech rights.


    Anthony Llewellyn now has three lawyers, Andrew Price, Kate E. Maternowski, and Laura Brenner . Jury trial is still scheduled for SEP 15 - SEP 17, 2014, in the Walworth County Judicial Center Courtroom of the Honorable Phillip A Koss; however, it is hard to find any of Anthony Llewellyn's videos online. IS HE TAKING THE VIDEOS DOWN?

    Sally Vogl-Bauer apparently had her pre-trial hearing AUG 20, 2014. It is no longer listed on the pending court docket.

    Visit . Click agree.

    On next page enter name = Llewellyn,

    County = Walworth,

    Case Number = 2013CV001140.

    You'll see suit history and public data about Sally Vogl-Bauer and Anthony Llewellyn.

  7. The widow of Chris Kyle, author of "American Sniper", is appealing former Navy SEAL and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura's defamation award against Kyle's estate. Her brief to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit cites David McKee MD V. Dennis Laurion as a precedent.
    In July, Ventura was awarded $1.845 million for claims made by Kyle in American Sniper Ventura says were fabricated and damaging to Ventura's career and reputation.
    Excerpts from brief:

    United States Court of Appeals
    for the
    Eighth Circuit

    Jesse Ventura a/k/a James G. Janos, Plaintiff-Appellee,
    Taya Kyle, as Executor of the Estate of Chris Kyle, Defendant-Appellant.

    Civ. No. 12-cv-472 (RHK/JJK) – District Judge Richard H. Kyle


    Attorneys for Appellant Taya Kyle,
    Executor of the Estate of Chris Kyle


    Appellant Taya Kyle, executor of the estate of Chris Kyle, asks this Court to reverse the judgment awarding Jesse Ventura $500,000 for defamation and $1,345,477.25 for unjust enrichment. Review of the record establishes that Ventura did not prove material falsity or actual malice. The court’s unjust enrichment award based on allegedly defamatory speech is unprecedented, distorts Minnesota common law, and violates the First Amendment. The judgment, therefore, must be reversed and the case dismissed.

    This Court should reverse the defamation judgment because the district court incorrectly instructed the jury about the questions of whether the statements at issue were materially false and published with actual malice. The First Amendment requires an appellate court to examine the record independently and enter judgment for the defendant where, no properly instructed jury could have found defamation liability. See Sullivan, 376 U.S. at 285.

    . . .

    The district court erred when it instructed the jury it could impose defamation liability based on the entirety of the “story” Kyle told about Ventura, rather than explaining that its original instruction required Ventura to prove all of the elements of his defamation claim with respect to at least one of the three specific statements at issue.

    A jury instruction is erroneous if it misstates the law. Wolfe v. Fayetteville, Ark. Sch. Dist., 648 F.3d 860, 864 (8th Cir. 2011). To establish a defamation claim, a plaintiff must prove that a specific statement is both defamatory and false. McKee v. Laurion, 825 N.W.2d 725, 729 - 30 (Minn. 2013). In addition, the First Amendment requires a public figureto prove that such a statement was published with actual malice. Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 327-28 (1974).

    The Supreme Court, this Court, and the Minnesota Supreme Court have all left no doubt that, to sustain a defamation claim with respect to a group of allegedly false and defamatory statements, a plaintiff must prove each of the elements of his cause of action with respect to each such statement. See, e.g., Air Wis., 134 S. Ct. at 864-65; Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, 501 U.S. 496, 502, 522-25 (1991); Stepnes v. Ritschel, 663 F.3d 952, 964-65 (8th Cir. 2011); Aviation Charter, 416 F.3d at 868-71; Michaelis v. CBS Inc., 119 F.3d 697, 700-03 (8th Cir. 1997); Price v. Viking Penguin, 881 F.2d 1426, 1429 (8th Cir. 1989); McKee v. Laurion, 825 N.W.2d at 729-30.