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- 2011 - December - 29th -

Appeals Court: Defamed business can’t force comment off the Web

by David Royse, The News Service of Florida

A website that allows Internet users to post opinions about businesses without regard to whether the “reviews” are true may be “appalling” in its invitation to slander businesses, but it doesn’t have to take the post down, an appeals court ruled Wednesday.

A three judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami clearly isn’t a fan of the website, www.ripoffreport.com, which is run by a company called Xcentric Ventures.

The Florida Supreme Court has said that the federal Communications Decency Act is clear: it provides “absolute immunity” to companies like Xcentric that allow third-party publishers to put otherwise illegal postings on the Internet.

That’s true even in this case where the person who posted the review later “begged” the company to take it down.

It has been clear for some time that the 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 — in which the trial court had found the posting defamatory.

In the case, a “disgruntled” customer of C&G Addiction Services, Donna Romeo, said that the addiction recovery company was run by a convicted felon and that employees illegally dispensed drugs.

The trial court found the claims to be false and defamatory. But citing a hard and fast company policy, ripoffreport.com refused to take down the post, even after the poster tried to get it taken down after she was sued.

The Miami trial judge, Peter Adrien, ruled in favor of the addiction service and issued the injunction, ordering Xcentric to take down the post, which it did.

Then, Adrien lost his re-election bid and he was replaced by Judge Beatrice Butchko. Xcentric filed a new motion to dismiss the case, which was granted.

On Wednesday, the 3rd District agreed with her, saying the law clearly protects the website from “any action,” not just damages.

That doesn’t mean the court has to like what Xcentric does.

“The business practices of Xcentric, as presented by the evidence before this Court, are appalling,” Judge Angel Cortiñas wrote for the court. “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.”

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