Free speech must be upheld in Web site dispute

A revolution, a Constitution and 267 years have come to pass since copies of The New-York Weekly Journal were burned for “libelously” exposing the corruption of the colonial government. But the same torch – and the same motives – that sought to silence those critics is poised to burn free speech from a popular Web site.

A Georgia Tech student is being sued for libel after he submitted a post on July 20 titled “worst service ever!” to VWVortex, the Volkswagen owners Web site. Mantis claimed Jim Ellis Motors of Cobb County, Ga., failed to fix problems with his 2001 Volkswagen GTI, and he concluded, “I’m seeking revenge as best I can. This is one way: telling all of you to avoid this dealership, for sales or service, like the plague.”

Since a Web site does not burn as readily as a newspaper, the dealership is asking a court to order removal of the posting and the approximately 950 follow-ups it has generated.

Like the governing aristocrats who charged The New-York Weekly Journal and publisher John Peter Zenger with libel to protect the offices they regularly abused, Jim Ellis Motors has responded to its dissatisfied customers by asserting that it is against the law for them to tell their service horror stories to each other.

But the Volkswagen owners who have rallied around George Mantis’ posting can complain under the protection of a libel law founded on Zenger’s defense: Libel is not just a criticism; it is only a factually false criticism.

What actually transpired between Jim Ellis Motors and its customers is not the issue. Reasonably or not, they are dissatisfied with the service they received, and their right to discuss their complaints and the reasons for them is the bedrock principle on which not only freedom of speech but all the freedoms of a democratic society rest.

A subjective opinion, by definition, cannot be conclusively proven true or false. The customer’s statement that he or she received substandard service cannot be directly refuted but will stand or fall as the audience judges whether the customer’s expectations were reasonable. To allow a court to designate an opinion “true” or “false” is to allow the government to set the absolute boundaries of what ideas may be written, spoken, or even what ideas a rational person can believe.

The jury in Zenger’s case saw through the government’s sham prosecution, defied the judge’s instructions and returned a not-guilty verdict. Despite not being well versed in legal theories, they knew punishing Zenger went against their innate sense of justice. The freedom they valued should be upheld now, and it should be defended against those who would silence their critics for no higher motive than personal – or financial – expediency.