Ruling: You Can Call Your Doctor 'A Real Tool' In Online Review

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(Janekpfeifer/Wikimedia Commons)
(Janekpfeifer/Wikimedia Commons)

Please forgive me for posting week-old news, but I somehow missed this important decision: The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a man whose online review of a Duluth neurologist included a nurse's description of the doctor as "a real tool."

The Associated Press report on the landmark case explains that "a tool" is "slang for stupid or foolish," but my own translation into the vernacular, by which I mean Yiddish, would be "schmuck," and the Online Slang Dictionary notes that "tool can also be found in the thesaurus categories 'Words meaning penis' and 'Words meaning uncool person, jerk, asshole (general insults - list of).'"

So to move on from the lexical to the legal implications, this ruling — which the AP notes is not binding in other states but may influence future decisions — seems to strike a blow in favor of patients' rights to disparage their doctors in online review sites. The AP reports:

The opinion, written by Justice Alan Page, said the comments posted by Dennis Laurion don't add up to defamation because they're opinions that are entitled to free speech protections.

"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. ... 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," the justices said.

And this from the losing lawyer:

"We feel it gives individuals undue license to make disparaging and derogatory statements about these people, particularly doctors and other licensed professionals, on the Internet without much recourse,"

Readers, opinions? My first reaction is that doctor-shopping remains unacceptably difficult, and the more information online about various practices, the better. On the other hand, it's true, some of the information on sites like Yelp may not be, shall we say, gold-standard...

Read the full AP report here.

This program aired on February 6, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.