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Food Blogger Fined for Restaurant Defamation

Mens Long Sleeve Oxford ShirtHere’s a piece of news worth knowing:  The Taiwan High Court sentenced a food blogger to a 30-day imprisonment and two years probation for criticizing a noodle shop.  The blogger wrote on her website that the restaurant is unclean, has bad food and is managed by a “bully.”

Liu Ying-hui, a food critic, appealed the decision and was instead ordered to pay damages amounting to Tw$200,000, or 7,000 U.S. dollars.   She was said to have visited the Taichung (Central Taiwan, one of the three largest cities in Taiwan) restaurant in July 2008 and ordered dried noodles and side dishes, and later reviewed the restaurant on her blog–the beef noodles was “too salty,” the place had too many cockroaches, and the restaurant proprietor was a “bully” for allowing his diners to park their cars unsystematically, which led to a traffic jam in the area.

Liu is a popular online writer in Taiwan who writes commentaries about a diverse selection of subjects –interior design, food, lifestyle and health topics.  Her website was said to have reached more than 60,000 hits that year.  The restaurant owner and his staff in restaurant uniforms received numerous phone calls from his regular customers to confirm with him if Liu’s allegations were true, and knowing how wide the circulation of Liu’s website is,  decided to file charges of defamation.

The Taichung District Court found Liu’s criticism to have gone over the edge.  The story about the cockroaches was deemed to be a statement of facts, not opinion, and her comment about the food being “too salty” was considered malicious. She couldn’t have known that all the food was salty, since she only had the chance to taste one dish on one solitary visit. Her implication about the sanitation of the place was also proven unfounded, as health officials inspected the place and declared it sanitary.

As expected, this bit of news drew different reactions from people worldwide.  Some were appalled by the verdict, believing that the ruling was too harsh, while others think that what happened is a sound way to keep online critics and bloggers from going overboard.   Many commentaries came out that the ruling would now dissuade critics and bloggers into making objective reviews and comments on business establishments, particularly on restaurants and their chefs in restaurant uniforms, for fear of defamation charges.

Defamation is defined in dictionaries as “the use of statements that are untrue and harmful, often with the intention to malign or discredit. “   The word is often linked to cases of slander and libel, the only difference being the way the harmful statements were issued.  Libel involves making defamatory statements in print or fixed media which are accessible for public viewing.  Slander, on the other hand, is in the form of verbal representation –the defamation was not printed anywhere and could only be proven through witnesses.

In cyberworld, the Online Law on Defamation is under the Communication Decency Act of 1996, which lays down the guidelines in handling defamatory cases in the internet, as well as other issues surrounding the use of the worldwide web.  Opinions and reviews are said to be non-defamatory (at least most of the time), as these are views based solely on personal judgment.  But merely tagging a statement as an “opinion” does not free a writer from libel charges.  Once a so-called “opinion” is determined to be an assertion of a verifiable fact (can be proven whether true or false), the subject can file for charges.  There is a wide gap in saying “the food I tasted was salty,” and “the food in that establishment is salty.”

We here, however, are living in a country where free speech is permitted.  But legal entities are saying that reviewers and bloggers should be more careful in disparaging businesses and people – if they have to, make sure that there is photo evidence that could back up the claim.  Our freedom of speech is a right and a privilege that many nations desire — we should all use it intelligently and sensibly.