When a person using a phony name posted a one-star rating – out of five stars – about psychiatrist Dr. Mark Beale on a Google Maps locator box, Beale saw it.
He was not amused. In fact, the Charleston-area psychiatrist was so disturbed that he filed a libel lawsuit against “John Doe.”
Beale in a separate court action now is demanding that the Internet behemoth Google divulge “John Doe’s” real name so he can go forward with his libel suit against the anonymous negative commenter. Google, headquartered in California, has 72,000 employees and is the world’s most widely used search engine.
The one-star review on Google “unfairly caused him to lose the goodwill and confidence of the community ... and harmed him in a way that lowers the estimation in the community about his professional practice as a psychiatrist,” wrote Steve Abrams, Beale’s attorney in the action, filed in state court in Charleston County.
The case pits free speech rights against the legitimate concern of a professional such as Beale to protect his reputation, on which his income in large part depends. Legal precedents give great weight to free speech, and Beale likely will have a high burden of proof to win his case.
A Charleston publisher and editor, Andy Brack, filed an affidavit on behalf of Beale, asserting that, “in the Internet culture, posting a one-star rating generally is considered a warning to others who might use a service or product. It is issued to try to discourage them from using the product or service.”
But in legal papers, Google replied that it doesn’t believe the anonymous posting hurt Beale’s reputation and made it clear it won’t reveal “John Doe’s” identity without a court battle.
“Google is standing up for people’s First Amendment rights to post anonymous opinions on the Internet,” said Jim Griffin, who with co-counsel Maggie Fox represents Google in the action. “Opinions are protected speech.”
To force Google to divulge information that would reveal “John Doe’s” identity, Beale would have to prove that the comment was false and injurious to his reputation, Griffin said.
Google’s legal filing in the case asserts that the one-star posting by “John Doe” had no text with it and is just a “quintessential statement of opinion that cannot be proven true or false.”
Moreover, Google argues, the psychiatrist can post his own rebuttal to the one-star rating “on the same site” and “thereby easily correct any misstatements or falsehoods ... and generally set the record straight.”
Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said opinions are protected speech and therefore not libelous.
“Opinions can’t be libelous, and this is just one star – what does that mean?” Rogers said. Asked what he would think if someone posted a one-star rating of his press association, Rogers said, “I would take it with a grain of salt. Some people are going to love you and some are going to hate you.”
In his lawsuit, Beale said “John Doe” employed an Internet masking technique called “spoofing” to use the phony name of “Richard Hill” and shield his real identity and email address.
Beale also asserted:
▪ He has never treated any patient named “Richard Hill” and, since “Hill” is a non-patient, he would have “no knowledge upon which to base a truthful review.”
▪ He “has received many legitimate reviews on other Internet sites in which he is consistently rated very highly by his patients.”
▪ “Richard Hill” is the pseudonym of someone who likely lives in Newport News, Va. An Internet search found two other reviews by a “Richard Hill,” both of Newport News businesses. One was a laundromat, which received five stars. The other, other, a barbershop, got one star.
“The false and negative review of Dr. Beale was published intentionally and recklessly, specifically calculated to cause emotional distress to (Beale), which in fact it did,” the lawsuit said.
In an affidavit in the case filed last week, Beale said the one-star rating “causes me extreme and constant distress as it is so out of character with my other online reviews and my otherwise good reputation in the community.”