FEBRUARY 8, 2013
“Doctor Suing For Defamation Of Character Shut Down By High Court”
Aaron Kelly, Internet Law And Defamation Law Attorney
The online defamation saga of Dennis Laurion is done. After years of litigation, Minnesota’s Supreme Court ruled that it is legal to cyber-share one’s negative opinions about a doctor. A case that tested Internet free speech limits, McKee v. Laurion is a textbook online defamation of character case study.
McKee v. Laurion: Online Defamation of Character Lawsuit
The McKee v. Laurion cyber libel war began in 2010. Laurion’s father was a patient at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, MN. McKee was the attending physician. Suffice it to say, the two men did not get along.
Laurion contended that McKee was rude to his father and made inappropriate quips about dying. The patient’s son also said one of the nurses called McKee a real tool.
Dennis Laurion the first round of the online defamation legal war, but an appeals court then ruled in favor of Dr. McKee. The State Supreme Court, however, put the matter to rest by reversing the Appeals Court decision and siding with the defendant.
Why The Supreme Court Ruled In Favor Of The Defendant, Laurion, In This Defamation of Character Case
In the majority opinion, Justice Alan Page explained that Laurion was operating well within his First Amendment rights. Page also addressed if calling someone a tool could be defamatory; he ruled that the commonplace colloquialism, though disparaging, is pure opinion since there is no way to measure “tool-ness.”
Opinion is Not Defamation of Character
Hop on any Internet forum and you come across a know-it-all who cries slander anytime someone shares a dissenting opinion. They are wrong. First of all, slander is spoken defamation; so by definition, a comment typed on a webpage cannot be slander. Libel, yes; slander, no. Secondly, in the United States, opinion is not defamatory. Thanks to the First Amendment, free speech is the law of that land, and that means being able to communicate our views publicly – no matter how offensive. In order for an online comment to be defamatory, at the minimum it must:
- Cause harm to the subject of the statement – usually a person or a business
- Be provably false
In addition, depending on whether or not the plaintiff is a public figure or a private citizen, in order to win a defamation lawsuit, the claimant must successfully argue either actual malice or negligence.
The Preface ‘In My Opinion’ Won’t Necessarily Save You From A Defamation Loss, Though
Too many people think that couching every statement in a qualifier eliminates the possibility of losing a defamation suit (i.e., In my humble opinion, John Doe stole money from the school district). That belief is not true. A false statement of fact is a false statement of fact, even if you attach a qualifier. You can be forced into bankruptcy, brought on by lawsuit damages, over a blog post that crosses the line – even in the free-speech-loving United States.
State Slander & Libel Laws Differ
While federal defamation statutes take precedence, each state has their own set of defamation rules and regulations. Some states acknowledge defamation per se, while others do not. In some jurisdictions, the defamation statute of limitations is 1 year, and in others it’s 3. If you are a journalist or blogger, review the defamation laws in your state. After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry.