It is important to understand the law of defamation when posting a complaint online—or anywhere else, for that matter. The standing to sue depends on the report and the operating nature of the entity that is the object of the complaint. The rules pertaining to malice for private figures are different from those for public figures and some businesses. It is not a good idea to file a formal complaint, even online, against an organization or individual that may have private status unless the complaint is completely valid.
Defamation lawsuits are based on the existence of malice resulting from the statement of the original complaining party. A defamation lawsuit can be filed by any individual at any time, as long as a statement has been made publicly that is detrimental to their personal reputation. Private citizens have a right to their personal reputation and do not need proof of malice to file a legal claim against a party that has issued a public complaint. Public figures also have an entitlement to a reasonable private life, so complaints about public officials can also constitute libel. Libel and slander are not the same legal term. Libel always involves written defamation, whereas slander can involve any statement that has been spoken publicly or privately.
Malice occurs when one entity has been defamed by another entity. For the private citizen, this does not necessarily happen publicly. Establishing slander only requires proving alteration of one individual’s perception of another individual. This is a very low legal threshold, so even reporting a person or company on a complaint website should be done cautiously. The complaining party should always realize that the Internet is a public venue, even if the personal computer is a private place. The website complaint service is a publication, just like a standard newspaper, and the same rules of defamation apply. Public figures need proof of actual malice to move forward with a claim of defamation in most situations, which requires admissible verifiable damage to the defamed public party. This normally covers most complaints about public officials and public companies, but they can still be libeled.
Truth as a Defense
Journalists deal with this situation daily, and a complaining party is effectively in the same legal position. Journalists are often professional complainers. The truth is always a defense, especially if it involves information that the public should know. Product safety is an excellent example of this necessity. Customer complaint resulting in significant profit loss will usually be strongly contested from a serious party, especially if they will be the target of legal action. False complaints can result in a counter defamation action against the original complaining party, so it is very important to ensure that the information in the original complaint is completely true.
There are complaint cases that can be settled on a publication website, as many complaint services allow rebuttal submissions. Additionally, arbitration can be offered if the parties are serious and willing to pay for the arbitration service. This can be an effective method of settling a complaint that may be libelous. The arbitration ruling is final and binding. Full evaluation of all possibilities is advisable before filing a formal complaint against any individual person or company. Companies have some privacy rights also, along with effective and experienced legal representation. One should proceed cautiously.
Savannah Bobo is a freelance writer, blogger, and online shopper from northwest Georgia whose expertise includes technical and creative writing. The best way to use customer complaint sites such as Gripevine is to express dissatisfaction clearly and directly to work toward resolution, not create conflict. Effective interaction online between companies and their customers should lead to both parties’ mutual satisfaction.