UPDATES & ANALYSIS

4.19

Iowa Supreme Court: Angry words on social media don’t necessarily add up to defamation

by Rox Laird | April 19, 2021

Bradley Brinkman wrote a Facebook post defending a friend whose plan to build a commercial dog kennel in Sloan, Iowa, came under attack from Richard Bauer, the manager of an apartment building next door.

In his post addressed to Bauer, Brinkman wrote:

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

A reasonable Facebook user would likely understand that Brinkman’s allusion to feces was just an expression of ire, however vulgar. But slumlord is a term that refers to something that can actually be defined and verified.

So Bauer sued Brinkman for libel, arguing that Brinkman’s post was intended to harm his reputation. The Iowa Supreme Court, however, didn’t see it that way.

In a unanimous April 16 decision written by Chief Justice Susan Christensen, the Court said Brinkman’s rhetoric was a statement of opinion, which is protected from libel action, not an allegation of fact, which is not.

If the term slumlord is read in the context of the entire Facebook post, along with the “piece of shit” reference, a reasonable reader would see Brinkman’s post as “rhetorical hyperbole,” not that Brinkman was in fact accusing Bauer of being a slumlord, the Court said.

Libel is defined in previous Iowa Supreme Court decisions as the “malicious publication, expressed either in printing or in writing, or by signs or pictures, tending to injure the reputation of another person or to expose [that person] to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule or to injure [the person] in the maintenance of [a] business.”

But the Court said statements that cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating actual facts are not actionable as defamation.

“The dispositive question in this case is whether a reasonable reader could conclude that Brinkman’s Facebook comment implied a factual statement that Bauer is a rental property owner or landlord of a slum area,” Christensen wrote.

While a term such as slumlord is capable of having precise meaning and being verified, it is not automatically rendered an assertion of fact, Christensen wrote. “The context surrounding the use of a term must be considered to determine whether it is protected as rhetorical hyperbole.”

In this case, Brinkman also called Bauer a “piece of shit,” obviously meant as an insult, not a verifiable assertion of fact. Moreover, Brinkman’s comments were part of a continuing discussion on social media of Bauer’s opposition to the dog kennel, not his merits as a landlord. All of which, the Court said, “lends support to the conclusion that Brinkman’s speech was name-calling and an insult rather than an assertion of fact.”

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