Judge refuses to have online criticisms of Greensburg dentist practice removed, allows lawsuit to move forward
A Westmoreland County judge Friday refused to grant an injunction that would have forced the removal of online social media posts a local dentist claims are libelous.
Common Pleas Judge Chris Scherer, in a four-page opinion, said the injunction request from Three Rivers Dental Group in Greensburg could ultimately have a chilling effect on free speech.
“Although this court’s finding is based solely on the facts presented before it and does not necessarily apply to any other postings or statements made in online postings, the grant of a preliminary injunction could adversely affect the public by putting a deterring effect on someone who intended to exercise their First Amendment rights by posting a negative review but hesitated because of a fear of potential lawsuits,” Scherer wrote.
That ruling came following a brief hearing Friday. The company this month filed a lawsuit against a Hempfield man, claiming he made defamatory and libelous claims in online posts to its Facebook page and other social media sites.
Three Rivers said the posts from former patient Robert Ottaviani contained false information about investigations and fraudulent business practices.
Ottaviani has maintained the investigations he referred to in the posts are active.
“I don’t believe (the posts) were libelous. I have a right to free speech,” Ottaviani said Friday. “I contend my allegations can be supported by investigations. What I did was within the law.”
Ottaviani did not attend Friday’s court hearing.
Scherer did not rule on the specific libel allegations brought in the lawsuit and denied a separate request Ottaviani submitted by mail to dismiss the case.
The judge said Three Rivers Dental presented no evidence that the posts would have a negative impact on its business and that written statements from company officials he reviewed Friday was not sufficient for him to determine whether investigations were launched regarding Ottaviani’s claims.
Three Rivers lawyer Marc Schneider said in court Friday the claims made by Ottaviani were not true and that no investigations are ongoing into the dentist group’s conduct. He also argued the social media posts could cost the company business.
Schneider said the injunction was needed to remove posts subject to the lawsuit from the company’s own Facebook site.
“Facebook does not allow for the removal of review posts,” Schneider said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .