The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

The Aristocrats: Consumer Online Reviews Are on "Issue[s] of Public Interest" for N.Y. Anti-SLAPP Purposes


From Aristocrat Plastic Surgery, P.C. v. Silva, decided today by a New York intermediate appellate court, in an opinion by Justice Julio Rodriguez III:

The primary issue on this appeal is the scope of "public interest" as defined in the 2020 amendments to New York State's anti-strategic lawsuit against public participation (anti-SLAPP) statute. We hold that defendant's reviews on internet recommendation platforms of plaintiff physician's treatment were communications made "in connection with an issue of public interest" …. Accordingly, defendant is entitled to seek attorneys' fees and damages ….

New York courts have generally applied a broad interpretation to what constitutes a matter of public concern. "Matters of public concern include matters of political, social, or other concern to the community, even those that do not affect the general population." When determining whether content is within "the sphere of legitimate public concern, allegedly defamatory statements can only be viewed in the context of the writing as a whole" and "[c]ourts must examine [the] content, form, and context" of the statements. Statements falling "into the realm of mere gossip and prurient interest" are not matters of public concern nor are "publications directed only to a limited, private audience." … Additionally, California courts applying the California anti-SLAPP statute, which is similar to the applicable New York Civil Rights Law provisions, to facts similar to those here have found that client or patient reviews on public websites concern public interests.

In the present case, defendant posted her reviews on two public internet forums, one of which has a stated purpose of being a key advisor for people considering plastic surgery, and the purpose of defendant's reviews was to provide information to potential patients, including reasons not to book an appointment with Dr. Tehrani. Defendant's posts concerning the plastic surgery performed upon her by Dr. Tehrani qualify as an exercise of her constitutional right of free speech and a comment on a matter of legitimate public concern and public interestnamely, medical treatment rendered by a physician's professional corporation and the physician performing surgery under its auspices. We therefore find that defendant's negative website reviews of plaintiffs' services constitute a matter of "public interest" as set forth in Civil Rights Law § 76-a(1)(d)….

Thanks to Brian Lehman for the point.