11/11/11

Can Book Reviewers Be Sued for Bad Reviews? Yes. Amazon Reviewer Sued by Self-Pub Author for Libel under British Law After French Award for Criminal Libel, and U.S. Precedent

The New Yorker's Book Bench is spreading the news about a lawsuit filed across the pond against an Amazon reviewer as well as Amazon.com and Richard Dawkins by the self-published author of a book entitled, "The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need to Know."

It's filed under British libel law and the first hurdle appears to be something akin to a Rule 12(b) motion under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure -- and it will be interesting to see what Great Britian does with this attempt to get money damages out of someone who wrote a thumbs down review of a self-published book uploaded for sale on Amazon. 

Laura Owen has written a nice summary piece on this reviewer libel suit over at PaidContent, entitled "Self-Published British Author Sues For Libel Over Bad Amazon Review.."

Book Reviewer Found Guilty of Libel in France for Bad Review

Think this is nuts?  Well, if this plaintiff had been following the news out of France, then maybe he is being crazy like a fox.  Seems that a plaintiff suing  for "criminal libel" under French law for a bad online review won -- got a nice chunk of change in an award, too.

Among the defendants:  the editor of the European Journal of International Law, New York University Law Professor Joseph Weiler.  Notice that an American book reviewer and noted law professor is being sued for damages in France, and he's posting about his courtroom experiences online. 

Wow.


Could this happen in the United States? Should American Book Reviewers Worry About Being Sued for Damages by an Author for a Bad Book Review?

In the United States, authors have already sued reviewers for allegedly destroying their writing careers by giving bad reviews of their work.  I haven't done extensive legal research on this, but I am aware of  a landmark case where the New York Times got sued by an author named Dan E. Moldea for a review it published by NYT sports writer Gerald Eskenazi. 

That case, really cases, sets a standard for review - there are two relevant opinions here:

Moldea 1:  Moldea v. New York Times Co., 15 F3d 1137 (D.C. Cir. 1994)

Moldea 2:  Moldea v. New York Times Co., 22 F3d 310 (D.C. Cir. 1994)

Interesting thing about Moldea:  upon appeal from a district court dismissal of the case as being without merit, the appellate court initially recognized a cause of action for damages based upon a bad book review -- then, the court changed its mind ... finding that the book reviewer cannot be sued as long as the review is (Moldea, 22 F3d at 315) :

rationally supportable by reference to the actual text he or she is evaluating

From the Moldea 2 opinion (22 F3d 311-312, 315-316):
After careful consideration of the Times' petition for rehearing and Moldea's response to that petition, we are persuaded to amend our earlier decision. The original majority opinion was generally correct in its statement of the law of defamation. Unfortunately, that opinion failed to take sufficient account of the fact
that the statements at issue appeared in the context of a book review, a genre in which readers expect to find spirited critiques of literary works that they understand to be the reviewer's description and assessment of texts that are capable of a number of possible rational interpretations. While there is no per se exemption from defamation for book reviews, our initial resolution  of this case applied an inappropriate standard to judge whether the Times review was actionable.

In light of our reconsideration of this case, we hold that the challenged statements in the Times review are supportable interpretations of Interference, and that as a matter of law the review is substantially true. Accordingly, we affirm the District Court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Times....
 We believe that the Times has suggested the appropriate standard for evaluating critical reviews: "The proper analysis would make commentary actionable only when the interpretations are unsupportable by reference to the written work." Petition for Rehearing at 8 (emphasis added). This "supportable interpretation" standard provides that a critic's interpretation must be rationally supportable by reference to the actual text he or she is evaluating, and thus would not immunize situations analogous to that presented in Milkovich, in which a writer launches a personal attack, rather than interpreting a book. This standard also establishes boundaries even for textual interpretation. A critic's statement must be a rational assessment or account of something the reviewer can point to in the text, or omitted from the text, being critiqued. For instance, if the Times review stated that Interference was a terrible book because it asserted that African-Americans make poor football coaches, that reading would be "unsupportable by reference to the written work," because nothing in Moldea's book even hints at this notion. In such a case, the usual inquiries as to libel would apply: a jury could determine that the review falsely characterized Interference, thereby libeling its author by portraying him as a racist (assuming the other elements of the case could be proved).
Our decision to apply the "supportable interpretation" standard to book reviews finds strong support in analogous decisions of the Supreme Court, all decided or reaffirmed after Milkovich. These cases establish that when a writer is evaluating or giving an account of inherently ambiguous materials or subject matter, the First Amendment requires that the courts allow latitude for interpretation."
 So, what is the bottom line?

It looks like book reviewers can get sued in the United States, but they will not be found responsible for damages as long as they adhere to the "supportable interpretation" standard (and again, this isn't a legal research project here -- the laws may have changed, I may not have everything here).  So, they can get sued here and have to pay a lawyer.  For writing a bad review.

However, in Europe, Americans may also face damage claims for harm alleged to have been caused by their bad book reviews - and maybe the results are different under that nation's law.

Being sued in another country sounds strange, far-off, and not too big of a deal right?  Well, considering the impact of the internet, nope.  For example, I have folk reading this blog from all over the world - Google actually provides translation if people in Poland or Italy or Japan or Korea want to read what I have written.

The web has made our world different.  Do you need to worry about being sued for your reviews?  Does this information change what you write on your blog or in a review on Amazon or any other online site?

Things to think about. 

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