Using Links as Citations Helps Gizmodo Defeat a Defamation Claim–Redmond v. Gawker Media

By Eric Goldman

Redmond v. Gawker Media LLC, 2012 WL 3243507 (Cal. App. Ct. August 10, 2012) published an article, Smoke & Mirrors: The Greatest Scam in Tech, about Redmond’s venture, Peep Telephony. In addition to using the word “scam” in the title, the article had lots of denigrating things to say about Peep and about Redmond’s prior initiatives. (The opinion lays out the beefs, although some of the hot spots are apparent from a quick review of the initial article). Gizmodo subsequently published Redmond’s rebuttals. Later, Redmond apparently decided the rebuttal wasn’t enough and asked Gizmodo to remove both articles, which Gizmodo declined to do. Redmond then sued Gizmodo’s parent Gawker Media for defamation. The court dismisses the case on anti-SLAPP grounds, and that means Redmond will owe a check to Gawker for his lawsuit.

The court has no problem finding that Peep Telephony’s activities were a matter of public interest, as Peep Telephony had received some high-profile coverage from technology reporters before Gizmodo’s story, and Redmond apparently had been trying to stir up press coverage in advance of the 2011 CES conference. The court summarizes that the “Gizmodo article was a warning to a segment of the public—consumers and investors in the tech community—that Redmond‘s claims about his latest technology were not credible.”

The court also says that Redmond’s beefs relate to statements of opinion, not fact. The court notes that the word “scam” as not a factual assertion (a dicey outcome), the article was written in a “casual” and “sarcastic” first-person style (“the article‘s general tenor and language would give a reasonable reader the impression the authors were expressing subjective opinions, not reporting facts”), and the article used weasel words, such as “seems,” “arguably,” “looks like,” etc., to qualify key fact-like assertions.

The most interesting part of the opinion is where the court talks about the article’s “transparency.” The court says (emphasis added):

The sources upon which the authors rely for their conclusions are specified, and the article incorporates active links to many of the original sources—mainly Web sites and promotional material created and maintained by Redmond and his ventures….Having ready access to the same facts as the authors, readers were put in a position to draw their own conclusions about Redmond and his ventures and technologies….Statements are generally considered to be nonactionable opinion when the facts supporting the opinion are disclosed.

This is true, of course, but a point often lost when defamation plaintiffs are breathing fire. A properly-cited article, filled with hyperlinks to original source materials, should be extra-resistant to defamation claims–even if written with typical blogger snark. Readers can easily inspect the source materials themselves and make their own judgments about the article’s veracity. Thus, either the citations provide proper factual support for the article’s opinion, or the links should eliminate any problems with the author’s knowledge (where that matters to the prima facie defamation claim, which would have been the situation here). Either way, the defamation claim should fail, as it did here.

So this decision is a great ruling for bloggers. Unfortunately, it’s unpublished (like far too many California appellate court opinions), which limits its precedential effect. To fix this, my RA and I are planning to request that the court publish it. Even if it remains unpublished, perhaps the ultimate takeaway–that defamation claims against well-cited blog posts will be quickly dismissed by anti-SLAPP laws and lead to the plaintiff paying money to the defense–will help dissuade similar lawsuits nonetheless. Especially in a situation like this, where the potential plaintiff already had gotten an on-the-spot rebuttal, suing over a blog post like Gizmodo’s rarely makes sense.