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Published: Wednesday, 7/11/2007

Chewing on free speech

AN EXPERIENCED critic for a newspaper walks into a restaurant and orders steak frites. In his review, he describes the meat as "miserably tough and fatty." The restaurant takes exception and sues the critic and the newspaper for libel, alleging that the reviewer actually ate a mere rib-eye.

For reasons that escape us, the suit isn't tossed out of court as an affront to First Amendment guarantees that protect opinion. Instead, a Pennsylvania court allows free-speech precedent to take a back seat to a restaurant's claim for unspecified damages.

The reporter is then ordered to give a deposition on camera, which will jeopardize his effectiveness as a restaurant critic if the footage becomes public. Sound far-fetched?

Not according to an account by The Associated Press. Restaurant critic Craig LaBan of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a less-than-flattering capsule review of Chops, a steakhouse in suburban Philly. Nearly a decade on the beat had not prepared him for the possibility that his Feb. 4 piece would be considered anything other than protected speech.

All critics expect disappointed, sometimes angry, reactions after a negative review - but not a lawsuit that could discourage honest critiques in the future while delivering punishment for one that has already run.

We are aghast that he has to defend his opinion in court.

The restaurant owner insists that the suit against Mr. LaBan is for a false assertion of fact, not an opinion. At issue is the critic's description of what he said he ate versus what the restaurant said he ate.

In the end, this is a distinction without a difference. A victory by the restaurant would result in tentative reviews and chilled speech, and probably not just at the Inquirer. For the sake of the First Amendment, let's hope the judge rules correctly in the case.

There's just no beef in this cockamamie lawsuit.

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