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In a case testing First Amendment rights on the Internet, a dentist and an oral surgeon in Florida have withdrawn a lawsuit trying to shut down a disgruntled patient’s scathing Web site critical of their care. At issue was dentalfraudinflorida.com, a site created by Elaine Prentice of North Palm Beach, Fla. She electronically blasted the care she received from Dr. Leonard Tolley, a Lantana, Fla., dentist, from 1996 to 1998 and from Dr. Richard Kaplan, a West Palm Beach dentist and oral surgeon, from August 2002 until March 2003. In the suit filed in November, the dentists claimed the site is slanderous, a “public nuisance” and violates state law making disciplinary complaints confidential if they are dismissed. The Palm Beach County Circuit Court suit was voluntarily dismissed Tuesday by the dentists’ lawyer, Bonnie Navin, an associate at McIntosh Sawran Peltz and Cartaya of Fort Lauderdale. Navin did not return a call for comment. “Our motion for judgment in the proceeding was set for Friday,” said Paul Alan Levy of the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington, which represented Prentice pro bono under the auspices of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Staring defeat in the face, they withdrew.” Levy’s co-counsel, James K. Green of West Palm Beach, claimed the dentists were relying on an unconstitutional confidentiality law. “I’ve gotten 10 gag laws declared unconstitutional,” he said. “For some reason, Florida has this history of trying to gag complaints about all sorts of people — public officials, police officers and others.” The suit was part of a widening war between doctors and patients that increasingly is being fought on the Internet. In the past, disgruntled patients have picketed medical offices. With the falling cost and wide reach of Internet postings, some unhappy patients are moving to the Web. “It’s so important that freedom of speech be maintained,” Prentice said. “I’m gratified that I can continue to tell the truth and give people vital information.” She posted a photo of herself with a wide smile as she held her dog, Mani. The text lists her complaints about the care provided by Tolley and Kaplan. Prentice said the dentists were paid $18,200 for work that she deemed unsatisfactory. The site launched last October costs Prentice $20 a month. She criticized their work on her braces, a five-unit bridge, two root canals, two extractions and two implants. In their slander complaint, Tolley and Kaplan maintained Prentice started her Web site “to publicly embarrass, humiliate or otherwise in an egregious manner reduce the reputation of the plaintiffs.” The doctors said Prentice filed a complaint against them and three other dentists with the state Department of Health’s Board of Dentistry in September 2003. According to their suit, a probable cause panel rejected the complaint, closed the investigation in May 2004 and informed Prentice. The dentists claimed the Web site discussed “confidential matters that relate to” the state’s review of her complaint that may not, under state law, be publicly aired “until 10 days after probable cause has been found to exist.” Since no probable cause was found, they argued Prentice had no legal right to publicly disclose the information. Green responded in January by citing a wealth of decisions holding that the First Amendment right to free speech supersedes any state law designed to protect confidentiality by inhibiting such speech. Much of what Prentice wrote on the Web site was her personal opinion. Green argued that it is constitutionally protected even if the site’s content was professionally damaging. Two constitutional experts not involved in the case agreed in January that Prentice’s constitutional right to express herself trumps state restrictions. “Prior restraint violates the Constitution,” Nova Southeastern University law professor Robert Jarvis said. Bruce Rogow, another Nova law professor, agreed. “If it’s defamatory, [the dentists] have a remedy at law — damages,” he said in January. “But you start off with a presumptive First Amendment right to speak.” “Opinion is protected speech,” Rogow said. On her Web site, Prentice explained her goal was to “teach. … I have no financial rewards or incentives related to my teaching Web site.”

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