Friday, April 16, 2021
The dismissal of a defamation claim brought against a person who commented on a blog post was affirmed by the Iowa Supreme Court.
Plaintiff Richard Bauer (Bauer) resides in Sloan, Iowa, where he manages Bauer Apartments. The apartments are owned by the Kendall R. Bauer Trust for which he is the trustee. On September 22, 2015, Kathy Lynch (Kathy) began the construction of Pet Perfect LLC, a dog care facility, directly next to Bauer Apartments. Bauer became concerned issues were going to arise from the dogs and their feces due to the outdoor area being constructed. He contacted the Sloan City Council and asked for the city’s zoning ordinances. Bauer also contacted Kathy about his concerns and offered to buy the parcel of land where she was building the facility. She refused. He ultimately filed suit against the City of Sloan and the city council members claiming they failed to enforce a zoning ordinance.
Here, the context of the speech begins with a Facebook post by Gabbie Lynch on her personal page. The post criticized [plaintiff] Bauer for expressing concerns about dog feces outside at Pet Perfect LLC. Several people commented on her post expressing their own opinions about Bauer. Bauer concedes in his briefing that none of the comments on the thread discussed the condition of the apartments or his managerial abilities. It would be more reasonable for a reader to understand Brinkman’s use of “slumlord” as a serious factual assertion if the Facebook thread related specifically to Bauer’s occupation and Bauer Apartments. However, the Facebook post and comments were individual’s emotionally charged responses to how they perceived Bauer’s actions in relation to Kathy’s business. As an example of the tone of the comments on the thread, the comment directly above Brinkman’s states, “Dear Mr. Bauer” followed by a photo with enlarged text stating, “Good morning. Don’t forget to drink your water and mind your own fucking business.” This context of an ongoing heated discussion on matters separate from Bauer’s role as a rental property manager lends support to the conclusion that Brinkman’s speech was name-calling and an insult rather than an assertion of fact. See Greenbelt, 398 U.S. at 13–14, 90 S. Ct. at 1541–42 (noting context of a heated public debate showed statement was rhetorical hyperbole rather than factual); Feld v. Conway, 16 F. Supp. 3d 1, 4 (D. Mass. 2014) (determining that a tweet calling the plaintiff crazy was a protected opinion when viewed in the context of an ongoing heated debate on the internet about the disappearance of the plaintiff’s horse).
An examination of the specific context of Brinkman’s Facebook comment additionally shows his statements were rhetorical hyperbole rather than assertions of facts. He states “It is because of shit like this that I need to run for mayor!” followed by a grinning emoji, and that Bauer is a “PIECE OF SHIT!!!” before calling him a slumlord. The tone “is pointed, exaggerated, and heavily laden with emotional rhetoric and moral outrage” thus alerting readers that the statements are expressions of personal judgment. Milkovich, 497 U.S. at 32, 110 S. Ct. at 2712 (Brennan, J., dissenting); see also Wahrendorf v. City of Oswego, 899 N.Y.S. 502, 503–04 (App. Div. 2010) (determining statements made on the internet that the plaintiffs were slumlords and sociopaths and their property was a garbage heap and pigpen was name-calling and general insults because the tone was intended to be humorous and sarcastic).
Furthermore, Brinkman did not attempt to provide any support for the statement that Bauer is a slumlord; therefore, a reader is alerted it is an insult and a “single, excited reference” rather than a factual assertion.