UPDATES & ANALYSIS

12.03

Facebook post was rude and insulting but not libelous, Iowa Court of Appeals rules

by Rox Laird | December 3, 2020

An obscenity-laced Facebook post calling an apartment building owner a slumlord may have been vulgar and insulting, but it was not libelous, the Iowa Court of Appeals said in a decision handed down Nov. 30.

Sloan, Iowa, apartment manager Richard Bauer created a stir with his battle against construction of a commercial dog kennel next door to his apartment building. The dispute made its way to Facebook, where Bradley Brinkman posted the following comment:

“It is because of shit like this that I need to run for mayor! Mr. Bauer, you sir are a PIECE OF SHIT!!! Let’s not sugar coat things here people, [K.L.] runs a respectable business in this town! You sir are nothing more than a Slum Lord! Period. I would love for you to walk across the street to the east of your ooh so precious property and discuss this with me!”

Bauer sued Brinkman for libel. The Woodbury County District Court dismissed Bauer’s suit on summary judgment. In affirming the trial court, the Court of Appeals held that however vulgar and offensive, Brinkman’s post was a non-actionable statement of opinion that is protected by the First Amendment.

The decision in Bauer v. Brinkman for a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals was written by Judge Paul Ahlers and joined by Chief Judge Thomas Bower and Judge David May.

“Brinkman’s comments may have been vulgar, offensive, insulting, and just plain rude,” the court said, “but they did not rise to the level of defamatory statements because they were expressions of opinion protected by the First Amendment.”

The court acknowledged there is a fine line between fact and opinion in assessing libel cases, and courts use a four-factor test as a guide. Bauer failed all four factors: Brinkman’s use of the term “Slum Lord” was vague enough that readers could supply their own meaning; his vulgarities, while offensive, qualified as mere “name calling” rather than actionable defamation; and his Facebook comment appearing amid a string of online comments on the dog kennel dispute would have been seen as an expression of an opinion, not a declaration of fact.

Judge Ahlers noted that the court was not making a categorical rule that statements on social media cannot be defamatory. “Rather,” he wrote, “we are acknowledging that, when alleged defamatory statements are made on a social media platform, the forum in which the statements were made is a contextual factor to consider in determining whether the statements are an expression of opinion or fact.”

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