The right to speak guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution includes the right to voice opinions, criticize others, and comment on matters of public interest. It also protects the use of hyperbole and extreme statements when it is clear these are rhetorical ploys. Accordingly, you can safely state your opinion that others are inept, stupid, jerks, failures, etc. even though these statements might hurt the subject's feelings or diminish their reputations. Such terms represent what is called "pure opinions" because they can't be proven true or false. As a result, they cannot form the basis for a defamation claim.
This is not to say that every statement of opinion is protected. If a statement implies some false underlying facts, it could be defamatory. For example, stating that "in my opinion, the mayor killed her husband" is not likely to be a protected opinion. Couching false statements of fact as opinion or within quotes from other sources generally won’t protect you either. Nor will trying to cover yourself by saying that a politician “allegedly” is a drug dealer, or that your neighbor said the politician “is a drug dealer,” or that in your opinion, the politician is a drug dealer. A reader may well assume you have unstated facts to base your conclusion on, and it would be a defamatory statement if the implied facts turn out to be false.
All opinions that rely on underlying facts, however, are not necessarily outside the opinion privilege. If you state the facts on which you are basing your opinion, and the opinion you state could be reasonably drawn from those truthful facts, you will be protected even if your opinion turns out to be incorrect. For example, if you were to say "In my opinion, Danielle is failing out of school" it would likely lead your readers to assume that there are some unstated facts you relied on to draw your conclusion. Such a statement would not be protected, as the privilege does not protect back door entry of facts as "opinion" through innuendo. On the other hand, if you state "In my opinion, Danielle is failing out of school because she is a blond and the only thing I ever see her do at the library is check Facebook," this provides the reader with the information you are basing the opinion on, and allows the reader to come to his own conclusion.
Compare the following two statements:
- "During the last six months I've seen Carol in her backyard five times at around 1:30pm on a weekday seated in a deck chair with a beer in her hand. I think Carol must be an alcoholic."
- "I think Carol must be an alcoholic."
The first example states true, non-defamatory facts upon which a reasonable conclusion (that Carol is an alcoholic) is based, and also emphasizes the limits of your knowledge (that you only saw Carol five times). It would be protected as a statement of opinion. Under the second example, readers would likely assume that there are unstated, defamatory facts upon which your conclusion is based. Therefore it would likely fall outside of the privilege.
Keep in mind that even if you state the facts you are relying on for your opinion, but those facts turn out to be false, the privilege will not apply. For example, if you say that "In my opinion, Danielle is failing out of school because she failed biology," the privilege would not apply if she got a C in biology.
To determine whether a statement is an opinion or a fact, courts will generally look at the totality of the circumstances surrounding the statement and its publication to determine how a reasonable person would view the statement. Under this test, the difference between an opinion and a fact often comes down to a case-by-case analysis of the publication's context.
Distinguishing Between Statements of Fact and Opinion
In general, facts are statements that can be proven true or false; by contrast, opinions are matters of belief or ideas that cannot be proven one way or the other. For example, "Chris is a thief" can be proven false by showing that throughout his entire life Chris never stole anything. Compare that statement with "Chris is a complete moron." The latter is an opinion (or, technically, "a pure opinion"), as what constitutes a moron is a subjective view that varies with the person: one person's moron is not necessarily the next person's moron. Put another way, there would be no way to prove that Chris is not a moron. If a statement is a "pure opinion," it cannot be the basis for a defamation claim.
Of course, it is not always easy to determine whether a statement is a pure opinion. As we noted above, opinions that imply false underlying facts will not be protected. For example, stating that "Chris is insane" could be both a fact and an opinion. It could mean Chris has been diagnosed with psychosis and needs to be hospitalized in a mental institution; this could be proven false. It could also mean that Chris has wacky ideas that one doesn't agree with, which is an opinion. In determining which meaning the statement should be given, courts often rely on context and common-sense logic (or to phrase it in legalese, the "totality of circumstances" of the publication). For example, if one called Chris insane in a forum post as part of a heated argument over politics, the statement would likely be interpreted as an opinion.
Some examples of protected opinions include the following:
- Statements in the "Asshole of the Month" column in Hustler magazine that described a feminist leader as a "pus bloated walking sphincter," "wacko," and someone who suffers from "bizarre paranoia" were protected opinion because the context of the magazine and column made it clear that the statements were "understood as ridicule or vituperation" and "telegraph to a reader that the article presents opinions, not allegations of fact." Leidholdt v. L.F.P. Inc., 860 F.2d 890 (9th Cir. 1988).
- Statement in the New York Post that referred to the plaintiff as a "fat, failed, former sheriff's deputy" was protected opinion because it was hyperbole and had an "alliterative quality" with a "rhetorical effect indicative of a statement of opinion." Jewell v. NYP Holdings, Inc., 23 F. Supp.2d 348 (S.D.N.Y. 1998).
- Statements on a radio talk show that described the plaintiff as a "chicken butt," "local loser" and "big skank" were not defamatory because they were "too vague to be capable of being proven true or false" and had "no generally accepted meaning." Seelig v. Infinity Broadcasting, 97 Cal. App. 4th 798 (Cal. Ct. App. 2002).
- A cartoon of a noted evangelist leader fornicating drunk in an outhouse with his mother because the parody was so outrageous it could not "reasonably be understood as describing actual facts" about Falwell or events in which he participated. Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 53 (U.S. 1988).
Keep in mind, however, that you can't make a statement an opinion merely by prefacing it with "in my opinion." Saying that "in my opinion, Alex stole ten dollars from the church collection basket" would lead most listeners to conclude you had evidence that Alex had indeed stolen the money, and that you intend the statement as one of fact rather than opinion. The courts do not give protection to false factual connotations disguised as opinions.
Context and the Totality of the Circumstances
In general, courts will look at the context and medium in which the alleged defamation occurred. For example, a statement is more likely to be regarded as an opinion rather than a fact if it occurs in an editorial blog as opposed to a piece of investigative journalism. The wider context may also provide a framework for the court: during the McCarthy-era witch hunts of the 1950s, for example, courts routinely held that referring to someone as a "Communist" was defamatory; in the present day, "communist" has taken on a more generalized (if still often derogatory) political meaning, and courts would almost certainly find use of the word to be a protected opinion.
The Internet presents particular issues for the courts, as it is a medium where the lack of face-to-face contact can often make judging the actual meaning and context of a publication difficult. Courts are likely to take into account the particular social conventions of the Internet forum at issue in evaluating a statement's context.
But much remains to be determined, such as how the courts would handle the nature of many discussion forums. A 2001 case that dealt with the opinion privilege is worth quoting at length as an indication of the approach courts may well take in determining whether an online posting is a statement of opinion or fact. In regards to a post on a financial bulletin board site the court noted:
Here, the general tenor, the setting and the format of [the] statements strongly suggest that the postings are opinion. The statements were posted anonymously in the general cacophony of an Internet chat-room in which about 1,000 messages a week are posted about [the particular company]. The postings at issue were anonymous as are all the other postings in the chat-room. They were part of an on-going, free-wheeling and highly animated exchange about [the particular company] and its turbulent history. . . . Importantly, the postings are full of hyperbole, invective, short-hand phrases and language not generally found in fact-based documents, such as corporate press releases or SEC filings. Global Telemedia International, Inc. v. Doe 1, 132 F.Supp.2d 1261, 1267 (C.D.Cal., 2001).
In short, the court concluded that "the general tone and context of these messages strongly suggest that they are the opinions of the posters." Id. at 1267. It is likely that other courts will take a similarly broad view regarding Internet forums for purposes of the opinion privilege.
To summarize, the factors courts often use to determine whether a statement is a protected opinion are:
- What is the common usage and specific meaning of the language used?
- Is the statement verifiable? Can it be proven false?
- What is the full context of the statement?
- What are the social conventions surrounding the medium the statement occurred in?
Note that each state decides what is required to establish defamation and what defenses are available, so you should review your state's specific law in the State Law: Defamation section of this guide to determine how the opinion privilege operates in your jurisdiction.