Court: Calling a doctor ‘a tool’ is protected speech

The Minnesota Supreme Court has thrown out the case against a man for rating a doctor online.

Kenneth Laurion had a stroke in 2010 and was examined in the hospital by neurosurgeon Dr. David McKee in Duluth. Laurion’s son found McKee to be “rude and insensitive” during the 20-minute examination.

So he posted the following on some “rate-your-doctor” websites:

My father spent 2 days in ICU after a hemorrhagic stroke. He saw a speech therapist and a physical therapist for evaluation. About 10 minutes after my father transferred from ICU to a ward room, Dr. McKee walked into a family visit with my dad. He seemed upset that my father had been moved. Never having met my father or his family, Dr. McKee said, “When you weren’t in ICU, I had to spend time finding out if you transferred or died.” When we gaped at him, he said, “Well, 44% of hemorrhagic strokes die within 30 days. I guess this is the better option.” My father mentioned that he’d been seen by a physical therapist and speech therapist. Dr. McKee said, “Therapists? You don’t need therapy.” He pulled my father to a sitting position and asked him to get out of bed and walk.[] When my father said his gown was just hanging from his neck without a back, Dr. McKee said, “That doesn’t matter.” My wife said, “It matters to us; let us go into the hall.” Five minutes later, Dr. McKee strode out of the room. He did not talk to my mother or myself. When I mentioned Dr. McKee’s name to a friend who is a nurse, she said, “Dr. McKee is a real tool!”

McKee sued for defamation. A district court judge court threw the case out, but an appeals court kept the defamation claims intact.

Today, the Minnesota Supreme Court threw those claims out, too, saying there’s no indication they were false, and there does not appear to be any harm to the doctor.

Statement 3 was published as follows: “Dr. McKee said, ‘Therapists? You don’t need therapy.’ ” We fail to see how this statement, standing alone, is capable of a defamatory meaning that would harm Dr. McKee in the eyes of the community. By itself, Statement 3 is harmless. Doctors routinely evaluate whether therapy is appropriate for a given patient.

Of particular interest in the case is the debate over whether calling a doctor “a tool” is protected speech.

It is, the court said today:

Referring to someone as “a real tool” falls into the category of pure opinion because the term “real tool” cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating a fact and it cannot be proven true or false…. See Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 19-20 (1990). We conclude that it is an opinion amounting to “mere vituperation and abuse” or “rhetorical hyperbole” that cannot be the basis for a defamation action. (explaining that people often engage in name-calling “without any real intent to make a defamatory assertion, and it is properly understood by reasonable listeners to amount to nothing more”).

Nonetheless, the assertion that a nurse told Laurion that Dr. McKee is a “real tool” is one of fact because whether a nurse actually made the statement to Laurion is an assertion that can be proven true or false. Dr. McKee argues that Laurion’s possible fabrication of the existence of the nurse, and thus the statement attributed to the nurse, creates a genuine issue of fact as to the falsity of Statement 6. As described above, Laurion’s assertion that the nurse made the statement to him and the implicit assertion that the nurse exists are susceptible to proof. We nevertheless conclude that even though Statement 6 includes a factual assertion that can be proven true or false, Statement 6 is not actionable because the statement is incapable of conveying a defamatory meaning. First, the part of the statement that can be proven true or false–whether a nurse made the statement to Laurion–does not itself place Dr. McKee in a negative light even if it is false. The assertion that a nurse made the statement only has the potential to cast Dr. McKee in a negative light when combined with the second part of the statement–that Dr. McKee is a “real tool.” However, attributing the statement to an unidentified nurse does not add defamatory meaning to the statement.

As a final matter, a review of Laurion’s online posting as a whole does not change our holding in this case. Given the reasoning underlying our conclusion that the six individual statements at issue are not actionable, it would defy logic to conclude that the posting, when viewed as a whole, is somehow actionable. Therefore, we reject any argument that the totality of Laurion’s statements makes his online posting actionable.

Here’s the full opinion.

Nonetheless, there’s clearly a lesson here regarding posting material online: Be careful.

Jeff Hermes, director of the Citizens Media Law Project at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, told the Associated Press at the beginning of the case that “people who want to post critical reviews should think about whether they can back up their statements. And they can strengthen their position by stating the facts on which their opinions are based.”

“The reality is that we bet our house every time that we post content online,” Goldman told the AP. “It’s a lousy answer from a societal standpoint because we need people to share their experiences so vendors will be punished or rewarded as appropriate.”