For years, the website Ripoff Report has had a very well-known policy: It doesn’t remove content from its website, ever. In the past, this has been mostly true, even when Ripoff Report is presented a valid court order that information posted to the site is libelous and violates the First Amendment.
For most people, especially those posted on the site, this type of extreme position on rights afforded by the First Amendment and Communication Decency Act can be unfair. If someone actually goes through the trouble of obtaining a valid court order stating that content is defamatory, it should be respected and the content should be removed.
Just as a very general commonsense proposition: People say and do incredibly stupid things on the Internet all the time that make us none the wiser. Do we really need an unfiltered permanent public record available online for the world to see with a few key strokes? I think not.
Further, censorship is not always a bad thing.
The very law that allows websites like Ripoff Report to operate, the Communications Decency Act, encourages online censorship. Website owners that voluntarily screen out offensive and objectionable material in good faith are considered “Good Samaritans.” See 47 U.S. Code § 230 (c)(2). The whole point of the “Decency Act” was not to give the Internet a hall pass to allow indecent communication. It was to allow websites owners the ability to censor offensive speech without being sued. Having a court order declaring content defamatory seems like an objectionable reason enough to take something down.
Soapbox aside though, Ripoff Report’s no removal policy has made it very unpopular. It’s been the target of numerous lawsuits.
But as the title of this post indicates, Ripoff Report’s longstanding policy has recently and officially changed. Ripoff Report will now consider removal of certain content from its website if it is presented a valid court order declaring information in a Report defamatory.
Recently, I was in contact with Ripoff Report’s legal department involving several defamatory posts on the site. During the course of my communication with the site I was informed that Ripoff Report was in the early stages of implementing an official new policy regarding removal of defamatory content. According to Ripoff Report’s Executive Director and In-House Counsel, Anette Beebe, the gist of the new policy is as follows:
“The law protects and encourages Ripoff Report to make appropriate edits to Reports posted by third parties. Ripoff Report may use that editorial power to post findings from a court of law about the subject matter of Reports. In some cases, a Court may find that specific statements made by the author of a Ripoff Report are false and defamatory. When both sides of a dispute appear and contest the facts of a situation in court it is believed that the findings of the court are generally reliable and fair. Out of respect for the courts and the judicial process, Ripoff Report, upon request, may post that kind of finding with special prominence, and in some cases,may even redact the information specifically identified by the court as false from the original Report.” (Emphasis Added)
What this means is that Ripoff Report, under certain circumstances, may agree to redact information from posts. For those who are eager to have information removed from a Ripoff Report, this comes as welcome news. However, Ripoff Report wants potential plaintiffs who might go running to the court house tomorrow to know that not any old court order will do. Ms. Beebe, speaking on behalf of the site, explained:
Of course, in order to [consider redacting information from posts], Ripoff Report needs to see the specific findings of the Court and those findings (meaning the Judgment itself) needs to be self-explanatory, i.e., containing specific identification of the Report(s) at issue and specific identification of the statement(s) that were found to be false in the Report(s). We often get people who provide us with default judgments, and ask us to consider Report redaction content based on that. Those types of judgments don’t meet our criteria. In that case, we advise people to post their default judgment, and whatever other sort of supporting documentation they have, as a Rebuttal to the Report, and to tell their side of the story.
She also made clear as part of our exchange, that under the new policy, Ripoff Report will still not remove a Report in its totality.
Ripoff Report’s new policy is a welcome and overdue change. It’s good to see the site officially incorporating a little bit of flexibility and nuance into its rigid stance on removals.
However, the new policy is limited in many respects. For starters, as noted above, Ripoff Report will still not remove entire posts. Second, the site apparently will not accept judgments obtained by default (i.e. only one side shows up to fight a lawsuit and wins without contest).
As an attorney whose practice focuses on representing victims of online defamation, the second limitation is troubling. I certainly grasp the concept that not all judgments are created equally. Judgments that are obtained through unopposed ex-parte proceedings can lead to abuse in the judicial process. It happens.
However, as a general rule, default judgments and stipulated judgments should not be rejected out of hand. The vast majority of civil cases do not end with a judgment where “both sides of a dispute appear and contest the facts.”
This does not mean however that a party who has been defamed online should be denied relief simply because the other side doesn’t show up to defend themselves. This happens all the time for reasons completely beyond the control of an aggrieved party. It should also not diminish the validity of a party’s claims or harm a party has suffered and/or is suffering without further analysis of the judgment itself and underlying content claimed to be defamatory.
Ripoff Report’s new policy also provides that court orders presented to the site must be drafted in a way that identifies the specific reports and defamatory content at issue. Although not stated above, I would assume they are also going to be looking for some sort of indication or declaration in the court order identifying the defendant in the case as the author of the content in question, if it isn’t self-evident from the post and name of the parties.
Although Ripoff Reports new policy is still limited is many respects and will leave many parties unable to meet their requirements, luckily, major search engines like Google and Bing, and other major websites like WordPress and Yelp have policies regarding court orders that are usually, in my experience, far less rigid and unfair. Hopefully, Ripoff Report will continue to tweak and modify its policy in the future as to account for the vast amount of parties that will still remain unfairly aggrieved even after this most recent change.
Following review of this article, Ripoff Report’s counsel did add her personal perspective (i.e. not speaking on behalf of the site), that it may not be Ripoff Report’s policy to foreclose the idea of accepting default judgments completely, forever. She provided:
I do anticipate more leniency being considered in the future with default judgments so long as there [is]some prior court record that established that solid evidence supporting falsity was presented. I am just unaware of such a situation having been presented to us yet. As you know, repetitive situations often drive policy changes.”
What this statement means to me, is that as Ripoff Report continues to implement its new policy, and sees more judgments and requests to remove and redact information, it may determine that there are certain facts or circumstances that might give a judgment obtained by default or ex-parte hearing enough credibility to be acceptable to the company.
Only time will tell, but for those wanting to remove information from the site, it’s certainly something to be optimistic about.
CAN I GET A COURT ORDER TO REMOVE CONTENT FROM A RIPOFF REPORT?
If you or your business has been defamed on Ripoff Report and you are wondering whether you should get a court order to have content removed from the site, call an experienced Internet defamation attorney, like me.
Litigation over online defamation is complex. There are many considerations to take into account that must be discussed with an experienced Internet defamation attorney before taking action. Additionally, online defamation actions are notoriously difficult to prosecute because of the many procedural and substantive hurdles that must be accounted for.
And, as demonstrated above with Ripoff Report’s policy, websites and search engines are very particular about the kinds of court orders that they will accept and content in the court order itself that is required in order to have information removed. Therefore, it’s critical to hire an attorney who is experienced in the area of Internet Defamation and has gotten court orders of this nature with success in the past.
If you or your business is being defamed online on RipoffReport.com or another website like it, the Internet attorneys at Meyers Roman Friedberg & Lewis, LPA can help assist you in evaluating your case and obtaining a court order to get the content permanently removed. Call Aaron Minc at 216-373-7706 today to discuss your matter. Or e-mail me at AMinc@meyersroman.com.