JULY 9, 2011
“Wedding host fights reviews – Dancing Deer Mountain’s owners file lawsuits against people who posted negative online comments”
By Karen McCowan, The REGISTER-GUARD
CHESHIRE — Carol Neumann and Tim Benton created Dancing Deer Mountain nine years ago as a venue for weddings and other special events.
The site, tucked in among towering firs and lush ferns, has a grass-carpeted amphitheater and an open-sided lodge that Neumann and Benton built from trees felled on site. Neumann herself has divided, propagated and tended the mostly native plants lining the site’s paths.
But things haven’t been tranquil the past year for the small business the couple had carefully cultivated to provide their retirement income.
Dancing Deer Mountain bookings took a nosedive about this time last year, thanks to what Neumann and Benton say is a malicious campaign of negative — and false — reviews on Internet wedding sites.
“DO NOT USE THIS VENUE!!!!” began one post. “Upon arriving at this venue it looks perfect! WRONG!!!!!!”
“Beware! The owners of this venue are not cut out to be in the wedding business!” warned another.
“These people are insane!” said a third. “The venue itself is beautiful! However, the owner … is absolutely crazy and in my opinion is in need of professional help.”
In a series of defamation lawsuits filed this year in Lane County Circuit Court, Neumann and Benton say the posts were retribution by members of the bridal party and guests from a June 2010 wedding. The five lawsuits allege that the comments were an effort to ruin Dancing Deer Mountain financially after Neumann repeatedly confronted guests for consuming their own alcohol at the venue, violating a rental agreement signed by the bride’s family.
That contract banned hard alcohol, but allowed an agreed-upon amount of beer and wine to be served by an Oregon Liquor Control Commission-licensed server. Guests began flouting the alcohol rules during a rehearsal the night before the ceremony, the suits allege, prompting Neumann and Benton to review the contract with the bride’s wedding coordinator and send a letter to the bride’s mother warning her not to violate the contract.
But the unapproved drinking continued the day of the ceremony, the complaints say. Some guests became combative when Neumann tried to halt it, and Benton confronted one man for exposing himself while publicly urinating, the suits charge. The evening ended with the pair struggling to get wedding guests to leave by sunset, as the contract stipulated, the suits allege.
Other Internet posts called Neumann “crooked” and said she and Benton “changed the rules as they saw fit” to find a way to keep the bride’s family’s $500 deposit, which the contract allowed them to do if its terms were violated.
The venue had previously hosted “really beautiful, lovely events,” Neumann said. “And one nightmarish experience in all these years might not seem so bad.”
But once the June 2010 party’s “revenge posts” hit the Web, Neumann said, bookings for 2011 weddings dried up. Faced with only a handful of weddings during their May through October season, Neumann and Benton resorted to discounting their rates. Neumann estimates that they lost $20,000 in revenue to the spate of negative postings.
Four of the couple’s lawsuits, filed last month, target unknown defendants. The suits identify the defendants only as Janice, Judy, Julie and June Doe, because their derogatory comments were posted anonymously as “wedding guest” or using screen names such as “Honeyplease” and “derm01.” Another suit was filed this spring against a named defendant, Christopher Liles, because he posted the allegations about the deposit using his own name.
But days after Eugene attorney Steve Baldwin filed the Doe lawsuits as a precursor to seeking the posters’ real identities from their Internet service providers, a Lane County Circuit Court judge threw out the suit against Liles.
Judge Charles Carlson granted an motion filed by Liles’ Portland attorney, Linda Williams, to dismiss the suit under Oregon’s “Anti-SLAPP” law. The judge has yet to rule on Liles’ request that Dancing Deer Mountain pay his legal costs in the case, as allowed under the Oregon law.
Oregon is one of 28 U.S. jurisdictions with laws against what are known as “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation,” according to University of Oregon journalism and law professor Kyu Ho Youm.
The term “SLAPP suit” was coined by University of Denver professors in the 1980s to describe defamation suits — typically by deep-pocketed businesses — aimed at intimidating and silencing “normal, middle-class and blue-collar Americans” who may have testified against them at a zoning hearing or spoken out politically in some other way.
In 1989, Washington became the first state to pass an “Anti-SLAPP” law. It allowed defendants to file motions seeking swift dismissal at the outset of defamation suits if a judge determines that the suit aimed to deter or punish their statements to public officials in the course of government decision making.
Neumann was devastated — and her attorney disappointed — by Carlson’s application of it in the suit against Liles. “Anti-SLAPP suits were intended to keep big business from shutting up the little people,” Baldwin said. “Dancing Deer Mountain is a mom and pop business.”
Oregon journalism and law professor Kyu Ho Youm questioned, however, whether litigation is the best way to counter malicious Internet posts. Rather than trying to shut down their critic’s speech, business owners who feel they have been unfairly maligned could simply drown the negative comments with positive speech from satisfied customers, Youm said. “The beauty of the Internet is that they could neutralize it,” he said. Neumann and Benton tried that, Neumann said. They wrote to the websites that hosted the harmful comments, persuading them to remove the posts as unfair and untrue.
They hired a company, “Review Boost,” to survey and post positive comments from participants in other Dancing Deer Mountain weddings.
But the disgruntled folks the pair believe to be from the June 2010 wedding responded by posting new comments alleging that criticism of the venue was being censored — and posting their damaging remarks elsewhere. “That’s when we decided to take legal action,” Neumann said.
Though a judge has not yet ruled on the Doe cases, they are nearly identical to the Liles suit and thus may also be vulnerable to Williams’ successful argument to dismiss the Liles suit.
The Anti-SLAPP law is designed to protect defendants’ rights to be quickly extricated from weak free speech cases, Williams wrote, adding: “It does not matter if the weak claim is filed by a mom-and-pop business conducted from home or filed by a multinational corporation.”
Williams also argued successfully that Liles’ comments were his opinion in an Internet review, a forum in which “no reader … would have expected an impartial documentary.”
“Most children hear, ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all’ from ‘Bambi,’ ” Williams wrote. “Internet users realize it does not apply online. … The First Amendment allows for free-wheeling opinions.”
Neumann thinks the law is out of balance, however. “I respect First Amendment rights,” she said. “But does free speech take precedence over our right to discover who these (Internet critics) are, to call witnesses, present evidence and have a trial? There has to be a balance.”
Neumann said she and Benton are conferring with Baldwin, trying to decide whether to challenge Carlson’s ruling to the Oregon Court of Appeals, which has never ruled on the matter.
She also is pushing for a legislative remedy. She wrote a letter this week asking U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio to consider a federal version of the law that would protect the rights of small-business owners to “bring grievances to the courts, in good faith.” “The ‘right to petition’ is among the most precious of the liberties safeguarded by our Bill of Rights,” she wrote the Springfield Democrat.