A federal judge in Tennessee tossed out a defamation lawsuit brought against TripAdvisor by the dirtiest hotel in TripAdvisor’s 2011 Dirtiest Hotels list.

Kenneth Seaton, the owner of the Grand Resort and Convention Center in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, with backing from UK reputation management firm Kwikchex, which wasn’t a party to the defamation suit, sought $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages from TripAdvisor.

Grand Resort topped TripAdvisor’s 2011 Dirtiest Hotels list, published in January 2011, and the owner alleged that user statements about the filth in a bathtub, for example, were malicious and hurt the property’s “excellent reputation.”

The case hinged on whether a reasonable person would consider TripAdvisor’s 2011 Dirtiest Hotels list as fact or opinion, and Judge Thomas Phillips ruled that it was clearly based on user opinion, and protected by the First Amendment’s freedom of speech provisions.

Online opinions

“It does not appear to the Court that a reasonable person could believe that TripAdvisor’s article reflected anything more than the opinions of TripAdvisor’s millions of online users,” the judge wrote. “Plaintiff has failed to plead any facts that would lead this Court to find that TripAdvisor made a statement of fact, or a statement of opinion that it intended readers to believe was based on facts.”

The judge added: “Finally, although TripAdvisor’s method of arriving at its conclusions, unverified online user reviews, is a poor evaluative metric, it is not a system sufficiently erroneous so as to be labeled ‘defamatory’ under the legal meaning of the term.”

Kwikchex to the rescue

The judge noted in his ruling that Grand Resort’s answer to TripAdvisor’s motion to dismiss the suit “relies heavily” on a deposition by Christopher Emmins, Kwikchex CEO, who testified how his company prodded the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority to bar TripAdvisor from claiming its user reviews are from real travelers.

“… while the ASA prohibited TripAdvisor from claiming that all of its reviews were trustworthy, its study only affirms TripAdvisor’s assertion that it is clear from their website that the reviews are just that: users’ opinions,” the judge wrote. “Whether or not the reviews are from real travelers is irrelevant to the question of whether TripAdvisor insinuated that its ‘2011 Dirtiest Hotels’ list was based on anything other than opinion evidence.”

What the ruling means is that online review writers’ opinions are protected speech, and that lists such as the Dirtiest Hotels — or, in theory, a list of the 10 worst flight-booking apps, for that matter — should be considered opinion, not fact, and aren’t defamatory when they take companies to task.

Kwikchex has been spearheading opposition to TripAdvisor and its 75 million reviews and opinions, even though major hotel chains see the value in the reviews for their customers and use them on their websites.

Room Key and major hotel chains

For example, Room Key, the hotel website founded by Choice, Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental, Wyndham and Marriott hotels, uses TripAdvisor user reviews on RoomKey.com.

And, the ruling is a green light for TripAdvisor to keep doing what it is doing — at least in the U.S. However, after publishing its Dirtiest Hotels list from 2006 to 2011, TripAdvisor, facing heat from companies such as Kwikchex, abandoned the practice in 2012.

The ruling dismissing Grand Resort’s defamation suit against TripAdvisor was made August 22, although it hasn’t been widely publicized. Grand Resort last month filed an appeal of the ruling.

Following is the full text of the ruling dismissing the Grand Resort defamation lawsuit:

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