A recent court case may have extended the country’s robust free speech protections to the Internet. If so, it will become more difficult for wine companies anywhere in the world to sue for what they consider an unfair review or comment on a blog or in a Twitter, Facebook, Instagram post, or on other social media.
There were few, if any, court decisions supporting that view until August’s Penrose Hill v. Mabray decision in California. The case concerned wine producer Penrose Hill and its CEO, Philip James, who accused wine e-commerce expert Paul Mabray of writing a blog post and making Twitter comments defaming the quality of its products, and that Mabray had implied Penrose Hill was more concerned with marketing wine than making a quality product.
The judge, though dismissing the case on a technicality, said the constitutional protections for free speech almost certainly apply to comment on the Internet.
US libel laws are already much more liberal than those elsewhere in the world, including in other Western democracies. The First Amendment to the Constitution forbids the government from restraining speech, and there have been a series of cases supporting that interpretation of the First Amendment.
Hence, the decision in Penrose Hill may have set a precedent, at least for comments published in the US. The legal landscape surrounding Internet writing and social media has been much murkier than that for traditional media, which enjoys First Amendment protections. While it seems logical that a blogger or someone on Twitter should have the same free speech rights as a New York Times reporter, no court had apparently explicitly said that until District Judge Donna Ryu ruled that the defendant, Paul Mabray, probably would have won even if the suit had been settled on its merits. Ryu’s ruling concluded that Penrose Hill would not have been able to meet constitutional standards to prove its case, even without the technicality (which was based on when the suit was filed).
This was not lost on Mabray’s attorney, Rachel Matteo-Boehm, a partner with San Francisco law firm Bryan Cave Leighton. She told local media: “This is a victory for Paul, and not just for him, but for all people who engage in critical commentary over the Internet. … In addition, this decision confirms the broad protection, under the First Amendment, for expressions of opinion.”