|Any food blogger worth his/her salt has to be careful and make sure their salty commentary doesn't cross the line. (Elisabetta Grondona photo via Creative Commons license)|
A Taiwanese blogger with a family name of Liu was sentenced to 30 days in jail, two years of probation and was ordered to pay roughly $6,900 in compensation to a restaurant owner (named Yang) over a review, according to The Daily Mail of London.
Three of her comments were the focus of the legal action:
- The beef noodles, which are supposed to be the specialty of the restaurant, were "too salty."
- The restaurant had cockroaches and was, therefore, unsanitary.
- She called the owner of the restaurant a "bully" because he allowed customers to park their cars "haphazardly" in the parking area, causing traffic jams.
According to the article, Taiwan's High Court, which heard the case on appeal from a lower court, found that Liu’s criticism about cockroaches and the parking situation at the restaurant was a narration of facts, not intentional slander.
The High Court's main objection, surprisingly, was that Liu painted too broad of a brush when she criticized the restaurant's "salty" cuisine because she only eaten only one meal and paid the restaurant only one visit before publishing her review.
All food bloggers — even ones in the U.S., where legal thresholds for libel and product disparagement are much higher — are one caustic comment away from a lawsuit. Without the deep pockets of a large newspaper or magazine paying the free-speech attorney fees, a blogger can face bankruptcy from even the most frivolous slander or libel suit.
Restauranteurs, and businesses in general, can worry just as much about what a blogger may say on the Internet about their product as they are about a review from a respected food writer in their local newspaper.
Blog posts can live on long after publication. Reviews in traditional media also are getting longer shelf lives online. Discovery, via the right search terms, is just a mouse click away. One can even find reviews easily for restaurants long since closed.
I discussed this story with several food and beverage bloggers. All said the court's decision was over-reaching. A restaurant review, whether on a blog post or in a high-revenue commercial publication, is understood to be simply a snapshot in time, the opinion of one person on one day at one meal. Readers understand that and take note accordingly.
In the U.S., a libel or product disparagement lawsuit can bring even far more attention to the unfavorable review than if it were allowed to go into obscurity. Marketing-savvy businesses simply post a rebuttal comment with the original review and let readers decide whether the review's conclusions are warranted. Bloggers and traditional publications worth reading — i.e., managed by staff mature enough to welcome criticism — will approve the rebuttal comments. (Print media often publish the rebuttals as letters to the editor.)
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution offers far more protection than the free speech codes of other countries, including South Korea. However, there still are lessons for American food bloggers to help avoid trouble.
- Take a lesson from reviewers of durable consumer products, such as electronics. Reviewers will contact the manufacturer with a list of complaints or problems and ask for clarification or help. Sometimes, the problem is the reviewer's, and sometimes it's a defect. In other words, if you suspect a problem with a dish or service, verify that the problem actually exists and wasn't a fluke (a tragic accident killed one of the staff, leaving them short-handed during the lunch or dinner rush) or a matter of personally preference (salt of spiciness sensitivity).
- During those visits, pick a different entree each time.
- If you can't go more than one time because of time or monetary restraints, invite a few of your family, friends or co-workers with you so you can sample more dishes and also get an opportunity to see how well they serve your larger table.
- Never, ever, forget your camera. If you witness health code violations or something illegal, such as cockroaches, rats or "recycling" of banchan, take photos at that moment.
- In the U.S., truth is an absolute defense against libel, although there is no defense against costly, fruitless legal battles.
- In other countries, such as South Korea, this may offer only limited protection. Some protection is better than none.
- Sometimes, the most appropriate venue to complain about health code violations is the local health department, rather than a paragraph in your food blog, accompanied with snarky adjectives and flowery prose. If the local agency takes action, then report on that action. At that point, it's part of the public record.
- Criticizing for an issue outside a restaurant's control, such as how badly their customers park their vehicles, may create cute quips, but it mostly fails to provide constructive criticism for the proprietor or decision-making direction to the potential patron. Perhaps, the restaurateur could take corrective curbside action, if the problem actually existed.
Koreans call a stingy person "salty" as in 넌 너무 짜 nuhn nuhmu jja, "You're too salty." This restaurant owner seems to be "too salty" because of his own over-reaction to the original blog post.
The Taiwanese court's decision to penalize this blogger so harshly for such a facile opinion has brought real disrepute on Taiwan, far more disrepute than Liu's blog post brought on Yang's noodle restaurant.
Food bloggers based in the People's Republic of China have more freedom of speech than their Taiwanese counterparts.
"… man and we thought our speech was limited over on the mainland…. We find this pretty frightening. God knows we at Shanghaiist have written more damning things than that a dish was too salty. We hate to think what would happen if we were called Taipeiist instead." —Tiffany Ap of Shanghaiist, commenting on the caseWhen people in the PRC have greater freedom of speech than the Taiwanese, that is a sad day for Taiwan's standing in the free world.