Opinions — Everyone’s Got One

I don’t know if these days people are more opinionated than in times past.  Remembering dinners with my dad when I was a kid, I think not.  But, I do think that there are way more outlets for those opinions.   

Some of those outlets – Facebook and Twitter for example, aren’t necessarily designed for sharing opinions, but as crazy uncles and well-coiffed presidential candidates have demonstrated, it draws them like moths to a flame. But  review sites – like YELP and Rotten Tomatoes — exist precisely to gather and distribute opinions.   

And that is what Glassdoor.com is for.  It offers users the opportunity to talk about their job – whether they hate it, love it or tolerate it.  And the users who contribute reviews presumably assume that they can speak freely, without fear of liability, for two reasons.  First, the site allows for anonymous comments.  So theoretically at least, the speakers are masked.  And second, and probably better, is the First Amendment’s protection for opinion.   

Opinions can’t form the basis for a libel suit.  There is a fairly mundane reason for this.  A libel plaintiff must prove that the defendant made a false statement.  And a true opinion can’t be true or false. In my opinion, “Animal House” is the funniest movie ever made.  In my son’s opinion, that honor goes to “Old School.” Neither one of is wrong, but neither one of us is right.   And so neither one of us made a false statement.  And Will Ferrell can’t sue me.    

But that fairly simple fact seems to have eluded a California lawyer named Philp Layfield.  He and his firm are pursuing a defamation suit against several anonymous posters for comments they made on Glassdoor.  According to a subpoena served on Glassdoor, Attorney Layfield wants to know who authored the following posts:

    1.  “Bad place to work (this company just changed its name) Research Layfield & Wallace”
    2. “Deceptive, Unethical, Poorly Managed, No Sense of Direction” 
    3. “You will HATE working here – Please read all the reviews” 
    4. “Working Here is Psychological Torture” 
    5. “New Admitees Beware!” 
    6. “For the love of God, do NOT work here” 
    7. “Anyone who gives this place a full rating has literally just started working there.” 
    8. “Working for Philip J. Layfield (a.k.a. Philip S. Pesin) Was Pure Misery” 
    9. “Horrible place to work. Unreasonably cruel.”
    10. “Phil Layfield Changed His Name from Phil Pesin for a Reason”
    11. “Don’t let the name change fool you, read the reviews for Layfield & Wallace. This is Phil Pesin’s way of ‘starting fresh’”
    12. “Layfield & Barrett, wallace or pesin STAY AWAY!!! BAD BOSS”

I can see why he’s upset, but I can’t see why he thinks he has a case.  As unpleasant as the posts appear, they sure look like opinions to me.  Consider #1 – what makes a job a “bad place” to work?  Can anyone prove that’s a false statement?  Is it false to say a job is “pure misery”?  I don’t think so.  And I hope the court quashes the subpoena.  Anonymous speakers should not lose the right to speak anonymously (The First Amendment includes that right) just because someone’s nose is out of joint.  If the case lacks merit, so does the subpoena.   

And it seems to me Attorney Layfield may have one more problem – truth.  It seems to me that to prove the statements are false, he has to prove that it’s great to work at his firm.  But if he sues people for expressing their opinion, how great could it be?