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Online review sites wield enormous power, and some enterprising consumers have begun leveraging that power to extract refunds or other benefits from businesses worried about protecting their online reputations. Suppose you’re at an orthodontist’s office being fitted for some $5000 braces when the orthodontist accidentally pierces the inside of your cheek. You decide that (a) the doctor is incompetent and (b) the world should be made aware of that fact for the good of mankind. Your first instinct is to go to Yelp or HealthGrades and write a scathing review warning the public about the dangers of dealing with this orthodontist. But then you realize you might be able to gain even greater satisfaction another way: you contact the doctor, tell him of your plans to write a negative online review, and offer to refrain from posting the review if he will waive the $5000 charge for the braces. You get free braces, and the doctor gets to preserve his 5-star Yelp rating. Win-win, right?

Consumers have a First Amendment right to express their opinions regarding products and services they have received, but things get a little tricky when people threaten to exercise that right as a means to extract money from someone. Some would call this blackmail, known in Virginia as extortion. Extortion is governed by Va. Code § 18.2-59, which provides in pertinent part, “Any person who (i) threatens injury to the character…of another person,…and thereby extorts money, property, or pecuniary benefit or any note, bond, or other evidence of debt from him or any other person, is guilty of a Class 5 felony.”
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If Sally Ferreira‘s allegations are true, she has a valid claim for defamation per se against rapper 50 Cent which could possibly result in a seven-figure damages award. Ms. Ferreira, an actress, model, and dancer, sued 50 Cent (real name Curtis J. Jackson, III) for defamation and emotional distress in federal court in New York, making the following allegations:

Ms. Ferreira has appeared in music videos for various artists such as 50 Cent, Kanye West, Jay Z, Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliot, and Lil’ Kim. In March, Ms. Ferreira participated in 50 Cent’s music video for the song “Big Rich Town,” filmed on the subway in the Bronx. Shortly after the video shoot, leaked photographs of Ms. Ferreira and 50 Cent taken during the shoot appeared on Hip Hop Weekly and, along with commentary speculating (erroneously) that the two were spotted riding the subway together and that they were romantically involved.
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Think twice before clicking that Facebook “like” button. You may think you’re expressing a constitutionally protected right to express support for a political candidate, for which you cannot be terminated, but Judge Raymond A. Jackson of the Eastern District of Virginia recently ruled that merely “liking” a candidate on Facebook is not sufficiently substantive to warrant First Amendment protection. Expect this ruling to get appealed.

Sherriff B.J. Roberts of the Hampton Sherriff’s office was up for re-election when he learned that several of his employees were actively supporting one of his opponents, Jim Adams. The employees alleged that Sherriff Roberts learned of their support of Adams because they “liked” Adams’ Facebook page. They also attended a cookout with Adams and told others of their support, but there was no evidence that the Sherriff was aware of these activities. One employee sported a pro-Adams bumper sticker on his car and used choice words to describe the Sherriff’s campaign literature in speaking with a colleague at the election booth.

After winning re-election, Sherriff Roberts did not retain the employees. Sherriff Roberts claimed various benign reasons for the firings, including a reduction in force and unsatisfactory work performance. The employees sued Sherriff Roberts alleging that the firings were in retaliation for exercising their right to free speech and that the Sherriff Like Button.jpghad violated their right to free political association. Sherriff Roberts argued that plaintiffs had not alleged protected speech or political association and that he was entitled to qualified and sovereign immunity even if plaintiffs’ speech was protected.

Did an Associated Press reporter commit a foul against an NBA referee earlier this year by defaming him on Twitter during a league game? On March 14, 2011, National Basketball Association official Bill Spooner filed a federal defamation case against Associated Press sports beat reporter Jon Krawczynski for a brief item that Krawczynski wrote on his Twitter account that suggested Spooner was officiating a game dishonestly. During an NBA game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets on January 24, 2011, Krawczynski tweeted (twote?) that Spooner told Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis after an allegedly bad call against a Minnesota player that Rambis would “get it back,” and that Spooner went on to compensate for the incorrect call with a “make-up” call against Houston.

Spooner says that although he had a brief verbal exchange with Rambis about the foul call, he said nothing to the coach about giving anything back to the Timberwolves. His lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, says Krawczynski defamed him by telling Krawczynski’s Twitter followers in effect that Spooner had engaged in a “form of game fixing.” Spooner discusses in his complaint that the NBA was recently caught up in a controversy involving former ref Tim Donaghy, who pleaded guilty in federal court in 2007 after being accused of betting on games that he officiated.

The NBA itself discouraged the lawsuit, although it doesn’t believe Spooner actually cheated either. According to a league spokesman, “We investigated the content of the tweet when it appeared, found it to be without substance, and informedBball.jpg Mr. Spooner that we considered the matter closed. We subsequently advised Mr. Spooner’s lawyer that we did not think suing a journalist over an incorrect tweet would be productive.”

Kids these days. The use of fake IDs by teens is nothing new, but when that ID contains the name of a real person, and the imposter goes on to do naughty things while posing as someone else, the law of defamation can come into play. And if you’re inclined to post a YouTube video of that identity thief engaged in acts of questionable moral character, you’d better conduct some due diligence to ensure you don’t destroy someone’s reputation. That’s a lesson that Joe Francis, the entrepreneur behind the risqué “Girls Gone Wild” videos, may have just learned as a result of a $3 million default judgment entered against him earlier this month in New Jersey federal court.

In a complicated scenario typical of the Internet age, in 2008 Francis wanted to take advantage of that year’s scandal involving New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and a prostitute named Ashley Alexandra Dupre. He offered Dupre $1 million to appear in a magazine spread and participate in a promotional tour for “Girls Gone Wild,” but withdrew his offer when he found that he already had useful footage of Dupre from five years before, when she was 17 years old.

After Francis used the footage, Dupre sued him, claiming that she was underage and did not understand the release she had signed. However, Francis was able to come up Fake IDs.jpgwith a video of Dupre providing consent to appear in “Girls Gone Wild,” stating that she was 18, and showing the driver’s license of another woman who was of legal age. Dupre then dropped her suit against Francis.

The tort of defamation is widely misunderstood. Social media outlets like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, which allow easy publication and dissemination of information to a wide audience, are leading to a rise in defamation lawsuits in Virginia and around the country. To be insulted by another, especially when it happens in a public forum, can be hurtful and embarrassing. Whether the insult constitutes actionable defamation under Virginia law, however, or whether it is sufficient to satisfy Virginia’s “insulting words” statute, can present some complicated issues, often implicating the United States Constitution. Relevant considerations for any lawyer examining a defamation claim include the type and context of the speech, the identity of the speaker, the identity of the plaintiff, and the existence of qualified immunity or other defenses.

In Virginia, defamation includes both libel (written defamation) and slander (spoken defamation). There is no need for clever mnemonic devices to distinguish libel from slander, because Virginia law makes no meaningful distinction between the two and speaks only of the merged tort of defamation. The essence of any defamation claim is that a defendant published a false factual statement that concerns and harms the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s reputation. While it is common to recite that “truth is a defense,” that is not technically true, as falsity is a required element of the plaintiff’s proof.

Proof of several elements is required. The defendant must know that the statement was false or must have lacked a reasonable basis for believing it to be true. Defamatory words that cause prejudice to a person in her profession are actionable as defamation “per se,” meaning that it is not necessary to prove actual injury to reputation. Expressions of opinion, however, are constitutionally protected as free speech. Therefore, mere statements of opinion cannot form the basis of a defamation lawsuit.

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