A woman is facing a $750,000 defamation lawsuit and has been ordered to take down a negative Yelp review of a home contractor after police found no evidence for her allegations of shoddy workmanship and jewelry theft.
Dietz Development is claiming that Jane Perez’s scathing review has cost them new customers and, on Wednesday, a judge ordered a preliminary injunction for her to remove the post. Yelp and legal critics are worried that Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) laws chill free speech, but business owners say that legal intervention is necessary in an age when online reviews can make or break a company. As the Internet gives the average citizen a greater voice, courts appear to be willing to hold their exercise of free speech to higher standards.
Previous online review defamation lawsuits against medical practitioners have not had much luck. Twenty-eight states have statutes permitting the easy dismissal of libel suits under so-called “anti-SLAPP” laws designed to protect consumers’ free speech. Yelp itself is protected by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and cannot be held liable for any inane, slanderous, or downright mean things people say on the site.
Yet, all that could change as recent large-scale research finds that Yelp reviews can significantly impact businesses: A meager half-star increase on Yelp’s 5-star rating makes it 30 to 49 percent more likely that restaurants will sell out their evening seats. The newfound power of ordinary citizens may unwittingly give them greater legal responsibilities (to paraphrase Spider-Man).
The case dovetails a broader debate over whether bloggers should be treated as journalists. “Unlike thirty years ago, when ‘many citizens [were] barred from meaningful participation in public discourse by financial or status inequalities and a relatively small number of powerful speakers [could] dominate the marketplace of ideas,’” a court wrote in John Doe 1 v. Cahill. ”The [I]nternet now allows anyone with a phone line to ‘become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.”
Last year, a Montana blogger was sued for a whopping $2.5 million for defamation after a judge declared that she was not afforded the same protections as a traditional journalist.
Even businesses win the legal battle, they may lose in the court of public opinion. The Verge finds that users have been posting 1-star reviews in response to the Dietz suit. Attacking customers, it turns out, isn’t smart business.