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Protecting yourself from libel

Libel

Question:

A disgruntled former employee has been making up some really awful lies about me and posting them on blogs, review sites, etc. Is there any way to fight this besides an expensive lawsuit?

– Restaurant Owner

Answer:

Protecting yourself from libel, especially in the age of social media, is important but not easy. Drew Lazor, a food writer who spoke on this topic recently at a panel on food and the law likens it to trying to clean up a spilled glass of water by returning the liquid to the glass. While you might stem some of the spread, what’s done is done.

In this column we previously addressed dealing with negative or false reviews (such as those from competitors, disgruntled employees or scammers) on review sites. Depending on the terms of service, often a strongly worded letter is enough to take the offending content down on a moderated site. Companies specializing in managing online reputations can also help.

Where it gets trickier is if the lies are spread in other formats like the Facebook pages, blogs, or Tweets of former employees. In those cases, you would need to show—typically through a lawsuit or at the very least, threatening letters—that these injurious and unsubstantiated lies trump freedom of expression.

To be sure, a restaurateur could emerge victorious in such a libel suit, resulting in criminal charges in some jurisdictions and/or civil damages, but you are right that it will cost time and money to do so.  Like many restaurant problems, the only “easy” solution is preventing the problem in the first place, through good communication and a management team that doesn’t let employee dissatisfaction spin out of control to put the organization at risk—not an easy task, to be sure.

Social media policies that extend even beyond the term of employment are the next frontier in employee handbooks and contracts. More on dealing with Internet libel here.

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