Saturday, June 16, 2007

Another worrying development for free speech: "Defamatory" restaurant review

In February I blogged about damages awarded to a restaurant in Northern Ireland after a critical restaurant review in a newspaper. Now the High Court in New South Wales, Australia, has decided that a restaurant review in the Sydney Morning Herald was defamatory, opening the way for the owners to claim damages. The Guardian reports:

The case centres on a review of Coco Roco restaurant published in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in 2003. Matthew Evans, then the newspaper's chief food critic, dined at the restaurant twice and was not impressed. He said the flavour of oysters soaked in limoncello "jangled like a car crash" and that a sherry scented apricot white sauce that accompanied steak was a "wretched garnish" that he scraped off.

Awarding the restaurant nine points out of 20, he concluded that "more than half the dishes I've tried at Coco Roco are simply unpalatable", and that the food was overpriced.

The restaurant closed shortly after the review appeared.

There is a very fine line here. Restaurant reviews are part of free speech. Of course, they should not be malicious but they are celebration of opinion. I have read far worse review comments than the ones quoted above. It will be interesting to see whether the court awards damages to the former restaurant owners. But it this is a very worrying development for those who believe in free speech.

The Sydney Morning Herald's current chief restaurant critic, Simon Thomsen, said yesterday the judgment meant that now "anything short of hagiography will be defamatory".

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