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Singer/Professor Tries To Sue Student For Bad Internet Ratings, Fails, Appeals, Fails Again

While America is in desperate need for strong federal anti-SLAPP legislation, it's useful to point out when versions of these laws at the state level do their good work. One such law is the Texas Citizens Participation Act, or TCPA. Stories featuring the TCPA protecting the speech of those leaving ratings and comments online have been featured in our pages before, such as when a Houston law firm sued a former client for comments she made on Yelp and Facebook, or when a pet-sitting company sued one of its clients over a Yelp review that mentioned that the customer's fish was overfed.

The latest lawsuit to be defeated by the TCPA is that of Jennifer Lane, an opera singer of some renown (more on that later) and a professor at the University of North Texas. It seems that Lane had few fans among her students, judging by the defamation suit she filed against Christine Phares and several Does over negative reviews they gave on singer forums and ratemyteacher.com. From the latest ruling, for background:

Lane is an operatic singer and a voice professor at the University of North Texas (UNT). Phares is a former student of Lane’s at UNT. Phares anonymously posted a comment on an online forum for classical singers, stating that Lane: (1) filed lawsuits against each of her former university employers and against UNT; (2) “loses an average of 3–4 students out of her studio per semester”; (3) “teaches in unhealthy ways [and] causes vocal problems”; and (4) “talks shit on singers and faculty in a serious way.” Phares also posted comments on the RateMyProfessors.com website stating that: (1) Lane’s teaching methods caused documented vocal injury; (2) Lane is distracted and not focused during lessons, often on computers or her phone while a student is singing; (3) Lane is not organized and is often late to lessons; (4) Lane demeans students and is not respected by faculty, peers, or students; and (5) Lane has been on faculty probation.

Lane sued Phares and several anonymous commenters over the ratings and posts, asserting in the process that she was both not a public figure and that Phares had made the comments with actual malice. Sadly for her, the initial court ruled that she was wrong on the first count and that she didn't come close to proving the second. In the ruling, the court pointed to Lane's own website, where she even has a tab for "critical acclaim", in which the public positive coverage of her work is laid out. To have such public praise heaped upon her and then try to claim she is not at least a limited purpose public figure is actually kind of funny. Her lack of supporting evidence that Phares' comments were made with actual malice (meaning with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth) rather than representing a valid personal opinion was much less humorous.

Which makes it somewhat surprising that Lane chose to appeal the decision. The appeals court ruled against her again, going through a multi-page, painful explanation as to all the reasons that Lane qualifies as a public figure, from her website, to the press she has received, to the fact that she has previously used her limited fame and connections to recruit students. Because the court once again ruled that she is at least a limited purpose public figure, any suit against Phares over her comments would need to meet the actual malice standard. The court goes on to painstakingly explain the law and the bars Lane would have to meet to show actual malice and how she failed to do so in every case.

And because of the strength of the TCPA, Lane's appeal failed and the rights of a Texas citizen to speak prevailed. Imagine the explosion of speech that would be possible if this was done at the federal level with a full federal anti-SLAPP law? Open and honest discussions -- and, yes, those can include honest mistakes of discussion -- would suddenly be more possible throughout the union than they are today. That would undeniably be a good thing.

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