Recently, in Kuwait, we saw a blogger sued by management at a Benihana for a bad review. Now, A Taiwan court has gone one better: it sentenced a blogger to jail for criticizing a restaurant food as “too salty.”
The Taichung branch of Taiwan High Court sentenced the blogger known as Liu to 30 days in detention and two years of probation. It also ordered her to pay NT$200,000 in compensation to the restaurant. Liu had simply written a review of the restaurant, criticizing the establishment for salty food, dirty conditions (including cockroaches, and an irresponsible owner). The owner named Yang immediately fulfilled his description as a bully and filed for defamation.
What is astonishing is that the latest decision was from the High Court which upheld the ridiculous ruling of the Taichung District Court. While the High Court found that this was not a case of intentional slander, he further found the criticism unreasonable because she had tried only one dish. Thus, it was not clear if the rest of the dishes would have been too salty. Health officials later inspected the restaurant and found no unsanitary conditions.
Even though Liu apologized to the restaurant, the owner insisted that he still had to respond to phone calls to deny the allegations.
The case reminds one of Mr. Chow of New York v. Ste. Jour Azur, 759 F.2d 219, (2d Cir. 1985), where a Chinese restaurant sued a food critic for a negative review. The reviewer made the following allegedly libelous comments:
(1) “It is impossible to have the basic condiments … on the table.”
(2) “The sweet and sour pork contained more dough … than meat.”
(3) “The green peppers … remained still frozen on the plate.”
(4) The rice was “soaking … in oil.”
(5) The Peking Duck “was made up of only one dish (instead of the traditional three).”
(6) The pancakes were “the thickness of a finger.”
The jury found for the restaurant and awarded $20,000 in compensatory and $5 in punitive damages. However, the court of appeals reversed and found that the statements were protected as “opinion.” Notably, the statement about the Peking Duck came closest in the court’s view since it was a factual statement, but the court still found that it would not support the verdict due to the absence of malice:
Because of the absence of evidence showing either that Bridault or Millau knew that Peking Duck was not traditionally served as three dishes or that they subjectively entertained serious doubts about the accuracy of the statement that it is traditionally served in three dishes, we cannot say that the existence of malice has been established by clear and convincing evidence. Thus, this statement cannot support the judgment entered below.
The big difference of course is the aspect of detention and probation. I have no problem with the restaurant suing for defamation, though I would view these statements to be protected opinion. The punishment in this case is an obvious attack on free speech and is entirely unnecessary given the availability of civil remedies.