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Our View: Rules apply to online expression

Published: Wednesday, July 9, 2014 10:14 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, July 10, 2014 8:50 a.m. CDT

We often lament the lack of civility in today’s virtual society, but it bears noting that those who make critical comments online are not immune from consequences.

People say all kinds of things in countless online forums. Sometimes they write things that they would never dare say in a phone conversation, let alone a face-to-face meeting. The Internet gives some a feeling of freedom to lash out as they choose – but there are limits to those freedoms. Rules still apply.

A reminder of this is a case that was filed recently in Kane County Court, in which a DeKalb petting zoo owner alleges that a woman crossed the line from expressing her opinion into making false statements that injured his reputation.

The lawsuit, filed by Steve Vidmar and his company, Friendly Farms, alleges that a woman named Erika Gannon Hughes made untrue statements about the care and condition of the company’s animals in a review on the website  According to the lawsuit, Gannon Hughes wrote in her review of the business that the animals were severely abused, underfed, and had lice and parasites. Yelp has since removed the review.

There has been no resolution to the case. However, it is a good reminder that although the Internet gives us all a platform for speaking our minds, it does not free us from the obligations that come along with doing so.

Have a negative experience with a business? You’re within your rights to tell others about your experience. You can give negative opinions about a business’ product or service.

But you’re not allowed to make false statements of fact about a business or a person that damage their reputation.

When that happens in writing, it is called libel, and you can be sued for it. (When it is spoken, it is slander.)

Likewise, people sometimes assume that because they are commenting anonymously or with a pseudonym online, they can say whatever they like. But anonymity doesn’t give people carte blanche to engage in illegal activity or threaten the safety of police – law enforcement have proven adept at tracking down supposedly anonymous people engaging in criminal behavior online.

The Internet has allowed a diverse range of voices to be heard, which is a positive development for society. But there is a difference between speaking one’s mind and engaging in harmful or unlawful speech – and it is a difference that we all must respect.

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