Feeds

US court rules for 'gripe website' owner

Disgruntled customer's right to free speech

Security for virtualized datacentres

A US court has ruled that a disgruntled customer of an insurance firm cannot be sued for defamation over statements he made on his “gripe site” because those statements are protected free speech.

The case dates back to May 2000, when Ronald DiGiovanni obtained a service warranty – provided by Pennsylvania insurance company Penn Warranty Corp – for his 1994 GMC Sonoma truck.

The truck broke down, but Penn Warranty denied DiGiovanni's warranty claim. Consequently, he brought a small claims action against the firm, alleging breach of contract. The dispute eventually settled with a payout of $2,500.

But DiGiovanni was still unhappy. He set up a 45-page website – PennWarrantyLitigation.com – complaining about the firm. The site was available online for a few weeks in January 2004 but is no longer operating.

According to court papers the site contained some negative comments about the car service warranty industry, auto insurance and judges from New Jersey, but mostly focused on the small claims dispute.

Penn Warranty took objection, and filed a defamation action in relation to eight statements contained on the site, including descriptions of the firm as “crooked” and “blatantly dishonest”.

In response, DiGiovanni argued that the comments were truthful and his personal opinion.

In a ruling, published in late October, Judge Judith Gische agreed with the latter argument.

“Competing with an individual's right to protect one's own reputation, is the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech,” she wrote. “Consequently, statements that merely express opinion are not actionable as defamation, no matter how offensive, vituperative or unreasonable they may be.”

“Moreover, in the context of statements pertaining to issues of consumer advocacy, courts have been loath to stifle someone's criticism of goods or services,” she added. “The courts have recognised that personal opinion about goods and services are a matter of legitimate public concern and protected speech.”

On this occasion, said Judge Gische, the defamation action had to be dismissed because, on looking at the site as a whole, it was obvious that DiGiovanni was a disgruntled consumer and the speech in question was “merely a statement of defendant's personal opinion about the quality of services provided by plaintiff company.”

The Judge was also asked to rule on whether DiGiovanni’s use of the domain name – PennWarrantyLitigation.com – made him liable for damages in terms of the US Lanham Act, because it infringed upon Penn Warranty’s registered trade mark in the name.

Judge Gische said no, because DiGiovanni was not using the website for a commercial purpose and accordingly could not have the necessary bad faith intent to profit from the trade mark.

Nor were the names of the websites confusingly similar, she added.

See: The ruling

Copyright © 2005, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

More from The Register

next story
Bono apologises for iTunes album dump
Megalomania, generosity and FEAR of irrelevance drove group to Apple deal
HBO shocks US pay TV world: We're down with OTT. Netflix says, 'Gee'
This affects every broadcaster, every cable guy
Facebook, Apple: LADIES! Why not FREEZE your EGGS? It's on the company!
No biological clockwatching when you work in Silicon Valley
SCREW YOU, EU: BBC rolls out Right To Remember as Google deletes links
Not even Google can withstand the power of Auntie
Arab States make play for greater government control of the internet
Nerds told to get lost in last-minute power grab bid at UN meeting
Zippy one-liners, broken promises: Doctor Who on the Orient Express
Series finally hits stride, but Clara's U-turn is baffling
Don't bother telling people if you lose their data, say Euro bods
You read that right – with the proviso that it's encrypted
America's super-secret X-37B plane returns to Earth after nearly TWO YEARS aloft
674 days in space for US Air Force's mystery orbital vehicle
10 Top Tips For PRs Considering Whether To Phone The Register
You'll Read These And LOL Even Though They're Serious
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Win a year’s supply of chocolate
There is no techie angle to this competition so we're not going to pretend there is, but everyone loves chocolate so who cares.
Why cloud backup?
Combining the latest advancements in disk-based backup with secure, integrated, cloud technologies offer organizations fast and assured recovery of their critical enterprise data.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Saudi Petroleum chooses Tegile storage solution
A storage solution that addresses company growth and performance for business-critical applications of caseware archive and search along with other key operational systems.