A website that allows Internet users to post opinions about businesses – without regard to whether the “reviews” are true or not –doesn’t have to take the post down, an Florida appeal court ruled Wednesday, even if the post is “appalling” in its invitation to slander businesses.
A three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami isn’t a fan of the website, www.ripoffreport.com, which is run by a company called Xcentric Ventures, but the judges affirmed the website’s right to control its content. The Florida Supreme Court has said that the federal Communications Decency Act provides “absolute immunity” to companies like Xcentric that allow third-party publishers to put otherwise illegal postings on the Internet. In the case before the Court of Appeal, that remains true even in a case where the person who posted the review later “begged” the company to take it down.
It has been clear for some time that federal law protects such websites from liability for damages, and the plaintiffs in this case didn’t seek them. Instead, they sought an injunction to force the site to take down the post as part of a lawsuit against the poster after the trial court found the posting defamatory.
In the case, a “disgruntled” customer of C&G Addiction Services said that a convicted felon ran the addiction recovery company and that employees illegally dispensed drugs. The poster later requested removal of the article after she was sued, but ripoffreport.com refused to take down the post citing a hard-and-fast company policy.
The trial court later found the poster’s claims to be false and defamatory, and the Miami trial judge, Peter Adrien, ruled in favor of the addiction service and issued an injunction ordering Xcentric to take down the post, which it did.
However, Adrien lost his re-election bid shortly after the ruling and was replaced by Judge Beatrice Butchko. Xcentric then filed a new motion to dismiss the case, which Judge Butchko granted.
In late December 2011, the 3rd District agreed with Butchko, saying the law clearly protects the website from “any action,” not just damages. But that doesn’t mean the court likes Xcentric’s actions.
“The business practices of Xcentric, as presented by the evidence before this Court, are appalling,” Judge Angel Cortiñas wrote for the 3rd District Court of Appeal. “Xcentric appears to pride itself on having created a forum for defamation. No checks are in place to ensure that only reliable information is publicized. Xcentric retains no general counsel to determine whether its users are availing themselves of its services for the purpose of tortious or illegal conduct.”
Xcentric Ventures has been in the news before for its “Ripoff Report” website, having been called in one report “serial defendants in defamation cases.” The company says on its website that it has successfully defended more than 20 state and federal lawsuits.
The case is Giordano & G&G v. Rome & Xcentric Ventures.
Source: News Service of Florida, David Royse