By Elizabeth (Beth) A. Kapapoulos; Staff Member (Vol. 14), Chief Staff Editor (Vol. 15)
With the advent of the Internet, an entirely new realm of libel law has emerged in the courts, forcing judges to examine entirely new questions of Internet vigilantism and how to deal with crimes in a digital world. Defamation, 20 N.C. Index 4th Libel and Slander § 1, includes the two separate torts of libel and slander. This blog will focus specifically on the libel associated with Walter Palmer and Cecil the Lion.
The quickly changing application of libel law and its possible effects on Internet users is exemplified with the recent death of Cecil the Lion, a beloved lion in Zimbabwe who was the victim of a big game hunt. The hunter responsible for his death, Walter Palmer, is a dentist from Minnesota who is the latest victim of Internet vigilantism. Cecil the Lion fans have flooded his Yelp page with negative reviews and threats, forcing him to shut down his dental practice and hire security for his home because of death threats. At this time, Palmer has not been found to have done anything illegal according to American jurisprudence, but the Internet public has taken it upon themselves to punish Palmer for his actions.
These Internet nay-sayers are clearly exercising their First Amendment right to freedom of speech by giving their opinion of Palmer as both a dentist and a human being. However, this blog will explore whether or not these posters have gone too far. Is there a certain limit past which the First Amendment can no longer protect you? Is there any sort of protection to those who are libeled on the Internet? At what point does an opinion on an Internet site become libelous? These are all questions that have not yet been answered by the courts.
Libel Law and Internet Application
In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), the Supreme Court made it abundantly clear that the First Amendment should be afforded a lenient interpretation so that the national discussion could be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” 376 U.S. 254, 270 (1927)(stating that there is a national commitment to free public debate). However, in Rosenblatt v. Baer, it was asserted that a person has the right to protect one’s name and that “society has a pervasive and strong interest in preventing and redressing attacks upon reputation.” 383 U.S. 75, 86 (1966)(explaining that important societal values underlie the law of defamation).
Still, sometimes an injury to reputation is not enough to merit a removal of First Amendment protections.
Those who, by reason of the notoriety of their achievements or the vigor and success with which they seek the public’s attention are properly classed as public figures . . . may recover for injury to reputation only on clear and convincing proof that the defamatory falsehood was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth.
Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 94 S.Ct. 2997, 3008 (1974).
According to Minnesota law, libel is defined as “a defamatory statement, published to third parties, and which the speaker or publisher knew or should have known was false.” In this case, to find libel there must be an injury to Palmer’s reputation.
Despite this heightened standard for public figures, Palmer could still sue for defamation by showing that: 1) the statements were false; 2) the Internet posters and bloggers were at fault for not ascertaining the truth; and 3) there was actual malice by the posters and bloggers.See New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1927).
Application of Libel Law for Dr. Palmer
Given Palmer’s notoriety created because of the national press about his hunting of Cecil the Lion, which continues months after the lion’s death, it seems that Palmer would be considered a public figure. Further, the vitriolic responses on his Yelp page, some of which allude to horrible service by Palmer as a dentist, suggest that there has been injury to his reputation.
Clearly these statements were false, meeting the first factor. A court could find that the first factor was met by certain Yelp posts that allude to Palmer cutting patients’ throats during routine procedures and threaten to murder him, as well as Tweets that call him an “environmental terrorist”. Since Palmer is neither a murderer nor a terrorist, these statements are false. The posts meet the second factor, fault for not ascertaining the truth, as the posts written in first person narrative, and it is obvious that Dr. Palmer did not kill his patients. Since the patients know that they were not killed by Palmer, they are at fault for not ascertaining the truth. These harsh posts also prove the third factor under New York Times, actual malice, because their intention was to ruin his future business as evidenced by their publication on his Yelp page, which is usually used for reviews of businesses. Thus, since all three New York Times factors are met, it seems that courts could find the Internet defendants guilty of libel.
Cecil’s roar, once heard on the African savannah, can now be heard through the keyboards of thousands of outraged animal activists. Although the Internet creates some difficulties in determining potential claimants and liable parties and presents a host of jurisdictional issues, the core doctrine of defamation and First Amendment protection still exists. The fast moving nature of our digital age and the ease at which libelous material can be disseminated makes this issue all the more pressing. In applying the factors to determine defamation, it seems that many of these Internet users could be legally liable for their statements against Palmer.