The Eater LA post re-prints an email from a tipster, whose identity the blog does not reveal, accusing a Downtown wine bar called The Must of surreptitiously serving cheapo cheese from a low-quality supplier, and various hygiene-related misdeeds. The Must's owners vigorously dispute the allegations, and told the LA Times that they "have receipts to prove it." And, says the Times, they are "angry enough to threaten...Eater LA with legal action."
Assuming that the charges are indeed false, I completely sympathize with The Must's owners in their anger at Eater LA, which apparently did not even contact them before publishing. But even if the allegations are libelous, it's doubtful The Must could win a suit against the blog. Here's why:
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides virtually airtight immunity from defamation suits for web sites that re-publish material provided by others. It's why the LA Times is protected from suits over reader comments posted below its articles, and Craigslist can't be held legally accountable for running hooker ads. In a case called Barrett v. Rosenthal, the California Supreme Court made clear that the act of re-posting an email on a web site is immunized by Section 230 -- even though it acknowledged that protecting "those who intentionally redistribute defamatory statements on the Internet" has "disturbing implications." The victim's remedy, said the court, is to sue the person who actually made the allegedly defamatory statement.
There's one wrinkle that might -- and I emphasize might -- possibly trip up Eater LA, despite Section 230. Eater LA can certainly be held liable for its own words. And the Eater LA blogger did write this:
Owner Coly Haan once described her menu as "white trash food with a twist," apparently now it's erring more on the "trash" side.Is the second reference to "trash" defamatory in itself? Or can these words be characterized as incorporating by reference the allegedly defamatory statements by the anonymous tipster, thus converting statements originally made by the tipster into Eater LA's own? I'm skeptical on both points, though less than 100% sure.
So if The Must wants to sue, its best target is the tipster, not Eater LA. Happy hunting...