"With the perceptions of the public, certain things may cross the line as to what is acceptable or not." In this case, however, the physician has no grounds for defamation litigation against the unnamed commentators, Muraskin says. The litigation becomes a "weapon of retaliation and clearly these were nondefamatory remarks protected by the First Amendment," he adds. The legal action's intent is to prevent someone from speaking out the next time, "dissuading future speech."
In the legal papers, Soto's attorney claims that the patients who posted negative comments online conspired to injure Soto's trade, business, and reputation. Soto seeks $49,000 in compensatory damages, among other relief.
Neither Soto nor his attorney would comment for this story. The court papers say he describes himself as running a "premier" surgery practice and facility. His Web site says he's "known for his precision and expertise in performing a wide variety of procedures for patients."
The doctor's site lists testimonials from pleased patients, with one saying, "I just want to take a moment to let you know how thrilled I am and have been about all aspects of my experience as a patient under your care. Your warm, personable manner put me immediately at ease and nurtured a comfortable rapport."
A major concern of Public Citizen, in the view of its lawyers, is that Soto is taking steps in court to try to identify at least one of the anonymous commentators.
Soto's attorney prepared a subpoena directed to Comcast of Georgia/Virginia to release the identity of the individual associated with the particular IP address that was in use on Sept. 15, 2011 at 8:48 p.m., in a motion opposed by Public Citizen and the ACLU.