Psychiatrist Drops His Lawsuit Against Critic Who Left Wordless One-Star Review

from the but-the-damage-is-already-done dept

It looks like the psychiatrist who sued a pseudonymous reviewer over a wordless one-star review has finally decided to stop digging this particular hole. Since news broke of psychiatrist Mark Beale's defamation suit against "Richard Hill," Beale has amassed a great many one-star reviews by non-patients. There's no telling if Beale will be seeking to file an en masse lawsuit against these Does (taking a page out of copyright trolls' handbooks), but this cannot possibly be what he envisioned when he decided the original one-star review was worth suing over.

Unbelievably, Beale managed to convince a judge to allow him to seek the real identity of "Richard Hill" in order to continue with his lawsuit. Not only did the judge give enough credence to Beale's argument that a one-star review was per se defamatory, but the judge granted the unmasking order, calling a review of business "commercial speech" -- something given less protection under the First Amendment.

University of South Carolina professor Eric Robinson has been keeping an eye and the local docket and sends us news that Beale has dismissed the case. It's a voluntary move [PDF] on Beale's part, but it's also without prejudice, leaving the path clear for Beale to refile.

But it doesn't look like Beale will amend this suit or refile, even if he's found a judge willing to bypass First Amendment protections to unmask a critic who left nothing more than a wordless single-star review. At least not against a Doe defendant. The unmasking did happen and Beale's request [PDF] to view the information turned over under seal to his lawyer was granted [PDF] by the judge. Soon after that, the request for dismissal [PDF] was filed.

This means Beale now knows who "Richard Hill" actually is. He could have stuck with the lawsuit, amending it to include the Doe's real name and serving the defendant. But he sought dismissal instead. Does that mean Beale found "Richard Hill" was actually someone he didn't want to take to court, or worse yet, someone he already knew? Remember, his original lawsuit contained some very curious assertions to bolster his allegations, the weirdest being that his mother thought "someone she knew" was trying to ruin his reputation.

Or it could be Beale discovered Hill was an actual patient of his, despite his assertions otherwise. (His lawsuit claimed two things: "Richard Hill" was a fake name and "Richard Hill" was not a patient of his. These two statements are tough to make definitively, but Beale asserted both simultaneously in his lawsuit.) Maybe he didn't feel like pursuing an unhappy patient in court, especially after he had already sworn otherwise in his complaint. Or maybe Beale is planning some sort of offline, out-of-court battle against the unmasked critic -- something that would be unfortunate but at least wouldn't allow this particular judge to continue his attack on the First Amendment.

That makes this cut-and-run a bit more interesting than it would normally be, as litigation has ceased after discovery of the only thing Beale appeared to be missing from his suit: a defendant he could serve. Equally problematic is there's a judge in the South Carolina court system where locals can take their grievances about anonymous commenters and expect unmasking to proceed, no matter how weak their arguments are.

Whatever the future holds for Beale and his litigious moves is unknown, but there's no undoing the damage Beale did to his own reputation by trying to make a case out of a one-star review. Had he done nothing, it would have been carried away by internet flotsam with zero damage to his career or future prospects. Instead, Beale could not let a one-star, wordless review go unanswered, and now his Google results are full of them.

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Filed Under: anonymous speech, criticism, defamation, first amendment, mark beale, one star review, reviews

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  1. icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 17 Jan 2018 @ 11:49am


    Not necessarily:

    The unmasking did happen and Beale's request to view the information turned over under seal to his lawyer was granted by the judge.

    He may decide to pursue his white whale outside of the courts, whether through the standard bumptious legal demands for money or through other means.

    If that happens, I'm wondering if "Richard Hill" would have grounds to sue those who unmasked him and exposed him to any such harassment.

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