March 7, 2011
Plastic Surgeon Attempts to Intimidate Online Critics With Frivolous Lawsuit, Public Citizen Tells Virginia Court
In Trouble With State Medical Board, Doctor Tries to Silence Criticism
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Five anonymous individuals who wrote negative online reviews of a San Francisco plastic surgeon did not violate the law, and the surgeon should not be permitted to force disclosure of their identities, lawyers for Public Citizen and the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union argued in papers filed Monday in a case pending in Henrico County, Virginia.
On Sept.15, the San Francisco Weekly published an article about Dr. Usha Rajagopal, a San Francisco plastic surgeon whose Plastic Surgery & Laser Center appears as the first business listing in a Google search for “San Francisco plastic surgery.” According to the article, Rajagopal’s Google page rank and stellar online reviews were the work of consultant Tracy Rosecrans of SF Web Consulting. It concluded that some of Rajagopal’s five-star reviews appear to be the product of astroturfing, defined by the newspaper as “ringing endorsements that look like a groundswell of support when, in fact, they are being paid for.”
The article also stated that the California State Medical Board placed Rajagopal on a three-year probationary period in June 2009. The probation resulted from allegations that one of her patients went into a vegetative state due to her “gross negligence” and “unprofessional conduct.”
Three of the defendants referenced the San Francisco Weekly article. One wrote: “After reading the article in San Francisco Weekly re: Dr. Rajagopal, have to wonder about all of the glowing five star reviews.” Another referenced the article and commented that “.[s]he is responsible for putting a woman into a vegetative state who later died.” Two others expressed their personal negative views.
Rajagopal responded by filing a lawsuit in Virginia, alleging that the defendants conspired to defame her, and subpoenaing Google for the defendants’ identities. By filing in Virginia, Rajagopal avoided a California statute that provides penalties for suits filed for the purpose of stifling speech on matters of public interest.
Public Citizen and the Virginia ACLU filed a motion to quash the subpoena and to sanction Rajagopal and her attorney.
“The First Amendment protects our right to speak anonymously, especially on matters of public concern,” said Michael Page, a Public Citizen attorney working on the case. “If business owners are able to unmask their critics and force them to defend themselves against meritless lawsuits, they will succeed in chilling their critics’ speech. It should take more to become a five-star doctor than marketing tricks and a lawyer willing to file frivolous lawsuits.”
Learn about Public Citizen’s work to protect First Amendment rights on the Internet.