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Facebook groups where women discuss dating topics are under fire in a lawsuit

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Today is the first hearing in a defamation lawsuit involving an Illinois man who claims dozens of women in a Facebook group have smeared him. The plaintiff, Nikko D'Ambrosio, is suing several online platforms and dozens of women, claiming he was defamed and doxxed and that his privacy was invaded. D'Ambrosio claims all these things happen in a Facebook group called Are We Dating The Same Guy Chicago, where women share relationship advice and then warn each other about men they say could be harmful. And we should note, there are Are We Dating The Same Guy groups for cities across the country. Lyrissa Lidsky is a constitutional law professor at the University of Florida. We've called her up to help us sort some of this out. Professor, does the right to free speech protect what is written in these kinds of Facebook groups?

LYRISSA LIDSKY: Well, to use the classic lawyer answer, it depends. It really depends on whether people are making false factual assertions that damage reputation or whether they're just expressing their subjective opinions in a way that's not asserting false facts.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. So D'Ambrosio claims that he was called clingy. How does the law determine clingy? Then how does things get proven that you're clingy?

LIDSKY: Well, clingy is clearly an opinion that's not verifiable, not provable in a court of law. He also made some other statements that might come closer to asserting false facts, but a lot of what he seems to be complaining about would fall into the category of protected opinion.

MARTÍNEZ: 'Cause I was thinking about the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when he described his threshold for obscenity, I know it when I see it. I was thinking back to my dating days, professor. Clingy - I know it when I see it. I mean, could that be just an opinion of the judge or a jury?

LIDSKY: It really - one of the hallmarks of opinion is whether you're implying a fact about the person that would tend to damage their reputation. Certainly, opinions can damage reputation, too, but in order to protect free speech, we let people have their opinions, even if they're misguided.

MARTÍNEZ: Right. And people post opinions on products and services all the time. Is that something similar? Could that be argued here?

LIDSKY: Yes. It absolutely is. This site is something akin to Yelp for dating, and there have been lawsuits involving all of the different review sites - TripAdvisor, Yelp, they've all been subject to defamation lawsuits based on unpleasant and unfavorable reviews.

MARTÍNEZ: So have we seen a case like this before?

LIDSKY: Well, as a matter of fact, we have. There was an older app called dontdatehimgirl.com, and in 2006, there was a very similar lawsuit by a man who had been criticized very harshly by an ex-dating partner on that site.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you know what happened in that case?

LIDSKY: Well, all I can find out from that case is that it was ultimately settled. So we don't really...

MARTÍNEZ: OK.

LIDSKY: ...Know what happened with that case because the settlement wasn't public.

MARTÍNEZ: Professor, legally, is it wise to use online platforms in this way?

LIDSKY: Well, all of us need to remember that what happens online doesn't stay online, and you can certainly be sued any time you make a false factual assertion that damages somebody else's reputation.

MARTÍNEZ: That is University of Florida law professor Lyrissa Lidsky. Professor, thanks.

LIDSKY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF YUSSEF DAYES' "FOR MY LADIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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