By David L. Hudson, Jr.
An individual’s Facebook post accusing an apartment manager of being a “slumlord” was protected rhetorical hyperbole rather than a false statement of fact, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on April 16th in Bauer v. Brinkman. The decision shows the importance of the context in which speech takes place, and stands for the principle that emotionally charged, insulting speech often will not form the basis for a defamation claim.
Richard Bauer, who manages an apartment building, had objected to the placement of a dog care facility next to his complex in Sloan, Iowa. The facility is run by Kathy Lynch, a local resident. He filed suit against the city of Sloan for allowing the dog care facility to open in alleged violation of a zoning law. Bradley Brinkman, a friend of Lynch, posted on Facebook:
“It is because of shit like this that I need to run for mayor! … 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! I would love to have you walk across the street to the east of your ooh so precious property and discuss it with me!”
Bauer then sued Brinkman for defamation, alleging that Brinkman falsely accused him of being a slum lord, a term that carries a defamatory meaning. Brinkman responded that his statements were constitutionally protected opinion rather than a false statement of fact.
The Iowa Supreme Court determined that the “slum lord” comment was more rhetorical hyperbole and an emotionally charged insult, rather than a factual assertion. “The context surrounding the use of a term must be considered to determine whether it is protected as rhetorical hyperbole,” the court explained.
Crucial to the court’s analysis was the fact that Brinkman’s comments took place on social media. The court cautioned that social media is not a defamation-free zone, writing that “[a] statement’s publication on social media does not automatically categorize it as a protected opinion and bar the author from liability for defamation.”
However, the Iowa high court explained that Brinkman’s comments came in response to a Facebook post from Lynch’s daughter criticizing Bauer. The court noted that “the Facebook post and comments were individuals’ emotionally charged responses to how they perceived Bauer’s actions in relation to Kathy’s business.”
A reasonable reader would understand that Brinkman was trying to insult Bauer rather than speak about his conduct as a landlord, the court concluded.
The decision is significant, because it explains the contours of rhetorical hyperbole, an important defense for speakers who engage in over-the-top exaggerated expression. Think Donald Trump, a persistent purveyor of over-the-top rhetoric. That defense protected the former President from a defamation suit brought by Stephanie Clifford, a.k.a. “Stormy Daniels.”
Rhetorical hyperbole often takes place on Facebook posts and comments, where individuals frequently vent frustrations and engage in name-calling. If the doctrine did not apply, there would be even more defamation suits filed by people whose feelings were hurt by online vituperations.
Rhetorical hyperbole serves a valuable purpose, providing breathing space for free expression from those who would wield defamation lawsuits as a weapon against those who dislike, criticize, or ridicule them.