Constitutional Law

'Need to go back to law school' comment isn’t defamatory, appeals court rules

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A Minneapolis lawyer can’t sue for defamation over a negative online review that said, “Need to go back to law school,” the Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled.

The appeals court ruled against lawyer Jeffrey C. Brown, a part-time conciliation court referee in the Hennepin County District Court.

The Volokh Conspiracy notes the Aug. 17 unpublished opinion.

An unhappy litigant, the CEO of Gold Star Taxi and Transportation Service Corp., had posted the law school comment along with his one-star rating on Brown’s Google My Business website listing. The CEO had deleted the review within a few weeks of its posting.

The appeals court upheld dismissal of defamation and deceptive trade practice claims by Brown.

The appeals court said the sentence, “Need to go back to law school,” is “pure opinion” that isn’t defamatory.

“The offending statement is vague—it does not indicate whether Brown, some other member of his law firm or the law firm itself ‘need to go back to law school,’ ” the appeals court said. “The statement could be interpreted to mean that Brown did not finish law school or that he was required to return for some reason unrelated to his performance as an attorney. The ungrammatical aspect of the statement—that either Brown or his law firm ‘need’ to go back to law school, adds to the uncertainty.”

“And the statement is not verifiable. It does not suggest any facts against which the need to return to law school could be judged, suggesting to readers that the statement cannot be proven true or false,” according to the opinion.

“Finally, [the CEO] posted his derogatory statement in the review section of a website that is a repository for opinions about businesses. The forum for and context of the posting are reasonably understood by readers to express opinions rather than factual statements.”

The appeals court upheld dismissal of the deceptive trade practices claim because Brown hadn’t made a threshold showing that the CEO made a false or misleading representation of fact or that he had posted the comment in the course of business.

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