A Virginia business owner is suing a woman for 750 large for posting on Yelp her scathing review of the remodeling work he had done at her home. She called the work shoddy, which is merely her opinion, and her right to express. But she also made up stuff. Stuff that implies the businessman stole jewelry from her home. Stuff that’s outside the realm of opinion. Libelous stuff. Stuff that comes right out of a Journalism 101 textbook chapter titled “Don’t Do This.”
In her Yelp post, the customer said she was the only one with the house key when the jewelry disappeared.
That’s not good enough to go to print or post, as any qualified reporter or editor knows. Nor has the contractor been charged with any crime. So far, the judge has ordered the woman to take down the parts about theft.
The judge also told her to take down her assertion that she had prevailed in a lawsuit the contractor previously had filed against her. Turns out the two had settled. That’s called fudging the facts, and it’s a no-no.
In this blog-enabled age, anyone can be a journalist. Anyone can share their observations of the world with the world. But if one is going to swim with the journalists, one must account to the same rules that apply to journalists. Rules such as those that govern libel and slander.
Journalists know that you don’t even hint someone is even merely an alleged thief, or an embezzler, a predator or something equally criminal unless you’ve got the goods: a criminal complaint, a police affidavit, or the on-the-record statement of someone in proper authority to make such a charge. This is not difficult to learn, by any means, but it is an essential practice if one is to make a living — or prevent a lawsuit — publishing information about other people.
The woman’s attorney is quoted as saying the judge’s action “appears to be a very chilling result in terms of speech.” No. There’s no chilling the truth. Stick to the truth, and you’ll have no problems.
It’s a pro-am publishing world. The amateurs will learn just how careful with information any pro publisher must be. And if, because of smackdowns like this one, they gain a little more appreciation for the work of journalists, so much the better.