Ripoff Report and Topix Postings Protected by California’s Anti-SLAPP Law–Chaker v. Mateo

By Eric Goldman

Chaker v. Mateo, 2012 WL 4711885 (Cal. App. Ct. Oct. 4, 2012)

Chaker and Nicole Mateo had a baby together. After the messy breakup, Nicole and Nicole’s mom Wendy allegedly posted derogatory statements about Chaker and his business online to Ripoff Report and Topix. The court has little problem rejecting Chaker’s defamation lawsuit under California’s anti-SLAPP statute.

The court sets the context by recognizing the Internet’s broad public reach:

we view the Internet as an electronic bulletin board open to literally billions of people all over the world. The Internet is a classic public forum which permits an exchange of views in public about everything from the great issues of war, peace, and economic development to the relative quality of the chicken pot pies served at competing family restaurants in a single small neighborhood.

The court then notes the public interest in information that helps consumers make decisions about goods and services in our economy:

The statements posted to the “Ripoff Report” Web site about Chaker’s character and business practices plainly fall within in the rubric of consumer information about Chaker’s “Counterforensics” business and were intended to serve as a warning to consumers about his trustworthiness.

This reinforces my perspective that consumer reviews categorically should qualify as addressing “issues of public interest” for anti-SLAPP purposes. However, as I documented earlier, the California caselaw doesn’t completely support this bright-line characterization. Instead, the cases make a distinction between consumer reviews that address broader issues and ones that are merely focused on personal issues. In this case, Chaker runs a forensics business, and his trustworthiness unquestionably should be a matter of public interest to the extent the judicial system relies on his work. At minimum, I would make a similar argument for just about every professional service provider–the trustworthiness of our lawyers, accountants, doctors and so on is equally critical.

The court then treats Chaker like a pseudo-public figure on Topix because of his participation there:

The remaining statements were posted to the “topix” Web site, which identified itself as a social networking site (“Join the Topix Community”) and permitted users to create their own profile and post information on its forum. These statements also fall within the broad parameters of public interest within the meaning of section 425.16. Of particular significance is the fact that it appears from the record Chaker became the subject of statements on the “topix” Web site only after he posted a profile on the Web site and it generated responses from other members of the community, including apparently statements from Wendy. Having elected to join the topix Web site, Chaker clearly must have recognized that other participants in the Web site would have a legitimate interest in knowing about his character before engaging him on the Web site. Thus, here Chaker himself made his character a matter of public interest as the term has been interpreted. (emphasis added)

I’m not sure about the court’s approach. Although I like the wide berth given to the anti-SLAPP law, I don’t know if signing up for an account at a user-generated content site means that all subsequent discussions about that person on the site qualifies as public interest. Applying the same argument to, say, Facebook would be illogical–people don’t become public figures on Facebook simply because they have an account there.

The court further reinforces that hyperbolic statements should be recognized as such:

the statements about Chaker were made in the context of the paternity and child support litigation going on between Chaker and Wendy’s daughter and all were made on Internet Web sites which plainly invited the sort of exaggerated and insulting criticisms of businesses and individuals which occurred here. The overall thrust of the comments attributed is that Chaker is a dishonest and scary person. This overall appraisal of Chaker is on its face nothing more than a negative, but nonactionable opinion.

In this context it is difficult to conclude Mateo’s alleged embellishments, to the effect Chaker picks up street walkers and homeless drug addicts and is a dead beat dad, would be interpreted by the average Internet reader as anything more than the insulting name calling-in the vein of “she hires worthless relatives,” “he roughed up patients” or “he’s a crook”-which one would expect from someone who had an unpleasant personal or business experience with Chaker and was angry with him rather than as any provable statement of fact. In this regard, we note the insults are generalized in that they lack any specificity as to the time or place of Chaker’s supposed behavior; the absence of such specificity is a yet a further signal to the reader there is no factual basis for the accusations. Thus, we are unable to distinguish these insults from the nonactionable ones posted in Summit Bank and Krinsky, and like the courts in those cases, we conclude these statements are nonactionable opinions.

I like how the court acknowledges that online readers can parse over-the-top hyperbolic fact-like statements. Not all courts would be so generous, but more judges should be receptive to this argument. For other examples of how we can discount hyperbolic assertions online, see Venkat’s post on Twitter defamation and the cases discussed therein.

Overall, this decision is quite speech-protective–and even better, the panel actually designated the opinion for publication, so it’s citable. But before we celebrate too much, don’t forget we only get such a broad decision because of California’s broad anti-SLAPP law. This is why I continue to favor passage of a federal anti-SLAPP law to provide this type of protection to defendants nation-wide–but why I don’t favor the Free Press Act of 2012, as I’m skeptical the defendants in this case would have met the bill’s requirement of being “representatives of the news media.”