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Could Chowhound be forced to identify critical posters?

Food for thought (and discussion): if a hound posts a negative review, can the restaurant sue for defamation and require Chowhound to reveal the poster's identity??


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  1. I dont think an honest, but negative review of a restaurant could ever be considered defamation.

    I would like the people who have never been to a restaurant and then either recommend it or bash it on Chowhound face some sort of retribution though. :-D

    2 Replies
    1. re: swsidejim

      And lets' not ignore the restaurant owners and their shills who post their totally biased glowing reviews of their establishments to lure in business. Anonymity cuts both ways.

      1. re: ferret

        I agree. But I think those particular posts are painfully obvious. Especially when they have only posted on 3 or 4 threads, all having to do with the restaurant, and all with glowing reviews. Always makes me wonder how crappy their other PR endevours are hahaha.

    2. I guess this is a good reason why CH doesn't allow talk about sanitary conditions or accusations of a restaurant making a poster sick.

      13 Replies
      1. re: KTinNYC

        I think it's totally appropriate, relevant, and useful for a poster to quote and link to a city health inspector's report. Truth is an absolute defense. If the restaurant doesn't like it they can complain to the inspector, not to CH.

        1. re: Leonardo

          Posting to the cities DOH is fine but random reports from anonymous posters is forbidden and understandably so.

          1. re: KTinNYC

            Posting a link to the city's DOH is not fine. I have received e-mails that state in no uncertain terms that it's forbidden. Strange, but true.

            1. re: Googs

              why? it is public information -- at least here in the u.s.

              1. re: alkapal

                It's public information here as well. Here's what the moderators told me.

                "When the subject of Health violations is raised, the discussion tends to focus just on that point, and such discussion is generally murky and undocumented, with a lot of hearsay and potential for abuse (from competitors, disgruntled ex-employees, etc.). Even where there are actual documented cases that can be supported with links to Health Department sites, it confuses posters when those are allowed but the hearsay and reports of less well documented infractions are removed."

                1. re: Googs

                  just recently, we had a little place nearby that closed. not knowing why, i believe i linked to the local inspection board site, which did not cite ant real probs. other factual (tho' rare) links, though, have stayed up without incident, afaik.

                  1. re: Googs

                    So they're saying that CHer's aren't smart enough to discern between a link to a health report on a restaurant and someones linkless opinion??

                    Heck, if a place is dirty, I wanna know.


                    1. re: Davwud

                      Yes, apparently the collection of lawyers, doctors, etc that are Chowhounds are easily confused.

                      I agree Davwud. I consider it a duty to report places that might harm a fellow Hound. I don't because it's disallowed.

                      1. re: Davwud

                        It is frustrating. Someone asked about a restaurant and wanted some place clean, as a top priority. I've seen cockroaches at one frequently recommended place but couldn't say anything.

                        1. re: chowser

                          I hope eventually they find a way that, while continuing to disallow hearsay, can allow links to Dept of Health sites.

                        2. re: Davwud

                          this kind of stuff can take over the site and it really has nothing to do with the food. Most restaurants get some negative items in their inspection reports from time to time. And if a restaurant is closed by the DOH, well, that speaks for itself and its no skin off any of us. My feeling is that people who are concerned about health reports can check the DOH site before going to a restuarant. I do not personally want to see it as an item of discussion here on chowhound.

                          1. re: jen kalb

                            I do want to see references on here to DOH reports if a place has a long history of bad inspections with borderline passing scores, has been on the edge of closing numerous times with 5-day "clean this up of die" notices, and has a clear pattern of being unable to master proper sanitary practices. To me, that is entirely germaine to my choice as to whether to eat there, and I would profusely thank anyone who raised a red flag.

                            1. re: jen kalb

                              Food handling has everything to do with the food. It also speaks to the proprietor's attitude towards their customers. I agree with Leonardo that repeat offenders should be singled out.

                              Things such as 'no handwashing supplies' is a stupid, never shoulda happened, easily fixed violation. A place near me has broken that rule repeatedly despite being inspected and informed they must supply soap (duh) and despite being directly across the street from a drug store. Yet can I say anything? No. Especially frustrating since they're supposed to be a "healthy" choice.

                              In my city you pretty much have to have rats doing the watusi on dinner tables before the city shuts them down. I'd like to know about serious violations before they form a conga line.

              2. The only reasons restaurants would be pursuing this course of action is for attorneys to send curt cease and desist letters threatening to file slap suits if the person doesn't pull the offending post or issue an apology.

                The federal courts have ruled again and again that restaurants and restaurant owners are immediately "public figures" and, therefore, any defamation suit has to prove actual malice. While some restaurants have successfully won lawsuits at the trial level, no judgment has withstood an appeal with the courts always siding with the critic saying that writing "their beef tasted like bleach and vomit" is protected speech unless the restaurant can prove the critic indeed had malice.

                Beyond that, however, I would be curious to know how a plaintiff could ever discover the identity of a critic on CH if that person used an online mail account like Gmail or Hotmail and used the local Kinko's, public library or Starbucks Wi-Fi to post to the site.

                5 Replies
                1. re: Seth Chadwick

                  Seems odd that people are allowed to trash restaurants and chains at will, whether they've been to them or not, but not "celebrity chefs" which are clearly more public figures and open for public comment than the mom and pop sandwich shop down the road.

                  1. re: Firegoat

                    People can and do bash celebrity chefs. The site asks people not to go overboard on generating repetitive threads that are nothing but rants about personalities that have little or nothing to do with food. In the end, this site is about the food -- they're within their rights to ask that in not degenerate into anti-celebrity rants.

                  2. re: Seth Chadwick

                    "Beyond that, however, I would be curious to know how a plaintiff could ever discover the identity of a critic on CH if that person used an online mail account like Gmail or Hotmail and used the local Kinko's, public library or Starbucks Wi-Fi to post to the site."

                    And how many people do you know who regularly post that way?

                    1. re: Steve Green

                      I don't know. I haven't asked. But I personally know several people who only have laptop computers and access the internet through their local free Wi-Fi whether at Starbucks or wherever.

                      If they wanted to post on CH, how could you ever confirm their true identity?

                      1. re: Seth Chadwick

                        It could still be traced. Your email address, hotmail or otherwise isn't a way of doing something without anyone ever knowing. It doesn't matter that you're using free wireless. You still own the email address and it can be traced.

                        If you don't believe me. Start looking for bomb making materials or kiddie pron like you do food info and see what happens.


                  3. I believe restaurants, like movies
                    and celebrities and politicians. are in the
                    "fair comment" category.

                    However, if a crank posts obsessive repeated
                    defamatory comments, a restaurant owner
                    might have a case. But would
                    a restaurant owner want to pay
                    the legal fees?

                    1. Probably only if subpoenas are issued for the CH user.

                      1. think, disparage, protection against...harm
                        www laws...a whole new field of litigation that is booming
                        accountability for what you write...is now what you publish thanks to wide use of Internet under original copyright and/or trademark laws
                        professional web surfers..hired to read, read, read and protect, think Google alerts

                        The world got really small.

                        1. reveal my identity?

                          chowhound doesn't know who i am

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: duckdown

                            Maybe not, but your ISP does.

                            This is an interesting legal issue, and I don't know that the matter is really determined for civil suits. If someone were making terroristic threats or using the site for RICO type activities then yeah, law enforcement will get the ISP to hand over the user & their information. So there's an established practice for felonies. But for civil matters, I'm not sure that ISPs have had to compromise their clients' identities and I'll be interested to see how that plays out or, if it has played out in the courts, which way it's going.

                            1. re: Mawrter

                              >Maybe not, but your ISP does.
                              well, on a sort of foodish note, unlikely if you use something like TOR [The Onion Router],
                              or other similar technology.
                              it might be interesting to know how long CH keeps various records and what
                              they do with them as a matter of course.

                          2. Just like the poster who ranted about a very well known loved restaurant in SD and stated the food was 'appalling'..he just moved into town and ate there once, had 2 app's, 2 entrees and what I found telling about this poster was that he never mentioned what he had, didn't go to manager but he was allowed to 'Hit and Run' this fine establishment by being somewhat anonymous on his posting at CH and by the time he signed off on his computer, it was already crawled by the bot and placed up on all the Search Engines..

                            1. Defamation requires malice combined with untruth. Chowhound would obviously prefer not to be a named party as the conduit for a defamatory claim. The report function is a useful tool for Chowhound and it's participants. I use it immediately when I see a wacko post.

                              1. A review, negative or positive, is or should be the author's opinion. If I recall correctly, defamation requires a false statement of fact, not just an unfavorable opinion. So if you are writing a review, and state that you thought the food was terrible or you didn't ilke it, that is your opinion. If you write that the food was inedible because it had ground glass or arsenic in it, and it didn't, that is a false statement of fact. As Seth posted, if the restaurant is a public figure, it has the burden of proving that the statement was false and actual malice--reckless disregard for the truth, not ill will.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: Kate is always hungry

                                  not only is kate always hungry, but she has also correctly stated the law on this subject.

                                  1. re: alkapal

                                    Exactly. How funny that SOME restaurants can't handle the truth.

                                  2. re: Kate is always hungry

                                    The problem is court action can be taken by big corporations and it can destroy a private person, financially, even if you're found not guilty in the end. It can just be about intimidation.

                                    1. re: Kate is always hungry

                                      yes, but statements of fact and opinion are often blurred and intertwined.

                                      does the restaurant owner have to make any prelim showing that the statement was a false statement of fact BEFORE getting the website to divulge the poster's name or after? that sounds to me like the issue the MD court is deciding.

                                      if the website has to divulge first, then i think chowser's right that it could have a real cooling effect on free, anonymous speech on websites, since the very threat of expensive litigation will shut people up -- even if they're in the right.

                                    2. sure. anyone can bring suit for (just about) anything. i haven't read the maryland filings and i don't know all that much about defamation law (i've never been defamed; my critics are generally pretty spot on), but i suspect that it's more about the issue of timing than anything else: can the business owner get the publication to divulge the name of an anonymous poster even prior to having to make a showing on any of the actual elements of defamation (including that of having suffered actual harm).

                                      even if the court rules 'yes', keep in mind that it's still the plaintiff's burden to show that it suffered actual harm in some way as a result of the supposed defamation, after learning a poster's identity. that's a pretty freakin' hard -- and expensive -- showing to make. even if a restaurant owner is bored / rich / pissed off / irrational enough to bring suit alleging that a random internet poster caused a specific harm to the restaurant, they're pretty unlikely to survive a motion for summary judgment.

                                      so, as much as we hounds like to think we have that much influence on the masses (enough that a bad review causes actual, documentable harm to a restaurant), i suspect that we do not. and it's pretty unlikely that a business owner would sue any individual chowhound, and if they did, that the owner would win.

                                      keep criticizing away, hounds. =)

                                      1. Since recommendations/reviews appearing on CH are collective, the "voice" of discontent (& often rebuttal) is fairly light compared to say a blogger on a personal crusade to slam a restaurant or eatery for whatever reason they believed justified.

                                        Identifying one poster in a community of a thousand (or more) voices is hard to call slander.

                                          1. re: charmedgirl

                                            I hereby withdraw all statements I made about Wretched Wray. :-)

                                          2. I think CH doesn't give its readers enough credit for sorting out the crank posts. I look at both glowing raves and nasty slams with a very skeptical eye--it's rare that a restaurant exceptionally wonderful escapes the general community's notice and that an exceptionally bad place stays in business. As for health inspections--I live in a state where the restaurant industry has basically shut down reporting of health inspections and food poisoning incidents. Some enterprising reporter out there should dig into it here in CT, but in general CH should not be acting on the industry's behalf to protect dirty places, in my opinion.

                                            6 Replies
                                            1. re: newhavener07

                                              Chowhound is "acting on the industry's behalf to protect dirty places"? Do you really think Chowhound's policies regarding not posting about food poisoning and health inspections are in place "on the industry's behalf" and not on the site's behalf? I've been using CH for 10 years, and this policy has not changed in that time so far as I can tell, from when it was an itty bitty site with a few hundred posts a week - anything but part of a corporate media behemoth and protector of industry.

                                              1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                                How is it on the site's behalf, or user's behalf, to junk any post on food poisoning? I'd like to know if someone I trust from their CH posts has gotten sick somewhere. This is the industry's dirty secret and it doesn't serve anyone to suppress posts about it from reputable posters.

                                                1. re: newhavener07

                                                  I assume the site is protecting itself legally, from allegations of defamation by posters. That's the site acting on its own behalf.

                                              2. re: newhavener07

                                                It's been done. The Danbury News-Times regularly reports on the results of the city's local health inspectors (like a police blotter), and the Hartford Courant has a "Restaurant Health Inspections Database" link at the bottom of its main webpage.

                                                1. re: rbailin

                                                  Routine health inspections are not what I'm talking about--I'm talking about reporting on food poisoning and mass food illness incidents in the state. We had one in New Haven a few years ago (I know someone affected) and by state law, the restaurant couldn't be named in any followup public records by the state. That's the industry-sponsored law--look it up.

                                                2. re: newhavener07

                                                  How we deal with reports of food poisoning and health code violations is a challenging issue, with many facets to it. We provide a loud microphone here for people to comment on a restaurant that provides a livelihood to many other people, and with that comes an imperative that we do our best to make sure that the discussion remains honest and in good faith. That means more than just protecting the community from shills and self-promoters. It works both ways -- both positive and negative posts about restaurants can be false or exaggerated. The higher the stakes are around a given subject, the higher the imperative that the information be clear and verifiable.

                                                  Unlike chowish, food-focused discussions where most people will balance the positive and negative posts to get a picture of whether they will like a place, and consider that sometimes restaurants have an off night, a single accusation of food poisoning is, for many people, all it takes to keep them out of a restaurant.

                                                  Medical authorities inform us that it's extremely difficult, given the differing gestation times of different agents and organisms, to determine when/where a bad stomach originated. What's more, even if one could pinpoint the origin, it'd be even more difficult to make a determination as to whether the sanitary issues at that place are ongoing or were a strictly one-time problem.

                                                  But even knowing that the accusations that did appear on our site were 100% true wouldn't necessarily be enough. By having a blanket prohibition on reports of food poisoning, we also avoid perpetuating the idea that we're a good source of information on those subjects. If we allowed some reports, but disallowed other more nebulous ones, people would get the impression that we were the right place to look for that type of information -- but our picture would invariably be highly incomplete. We can't provide an accurate, complete, timely picture of sanitation, and to avoid giving false negative impressions about a place or a false feeling of safety due to a lack of reports, we think it's better to take the issue off the table altogether, and ask that people instead source their information from the local Health Department, which can (or should). Offering a definitely incomplete, sometimes inaccurate, and generally out-of-date perspective on the issue is more damaging to both restaurants and diners than offering none at all.

                                                  -- Jacquilynne, Community Manager for Chowhound

                                                3. "if a hound posts a negative review, can the restaurant sue for defamation and require Chowhound to reveal the poster's identity??"

                                                  A potentially interesting sub-question for those of us who live in the international boards.......would such a restaurant sue in their own country, under whatever their own defamation laws might be or sue in America under whatever defamation laws you have there?