Yikes! Yelp Critics Lose Anonymity
January 9, 2014 by Personal Liberty News Desk
“Takes you to court if he doesn’t like your anonymous Yelp review. He will literally make a federal case out of it.” That was a review of Hadeed Carpet posted on Yelp today, in light of a ruling by the Virginia Court of Appeals confirming a lower court’s decision that Yelp must provide the names of seven reviewers.
Owner Joe Hadeed sued the anonymous reviewers, claiming defamation and citing Yelp in the complaint. In May, Public Citizen filed an appellate brief on behalf of Yelp, in which it argued that the trial court stripped the reviewers of their 1st Amendment right to speak anonymously.
The Washington Times reported: “The Washington Post filed a friend of the court brief in support of Yelp, as did Gannett Co. Inc., the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Society of News Editors.”
Generally, a Yelp review is entitled to First Amendment protection because it is a person’s opinion about a business that they patronized. But this general protection relies upon an underlying assumption of fact: that the reviewer was a customer of the specific company and he posted his review based on his personal experience with the business. If this underlying assumption of fact proves false, in that the reviewer was never a customer of the business, then the review is not an opinion; instead, the review is based on a false statement of fact–that the reviewer is writing his review based on personal experience. And “‘there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.’”
Here, Hadeed attached sufficient evidence to its subpoena duces tecum indicating that it made a thorough review of its customer database to determine whether all of the Yelp reviews were written by actual customers. After making such a review, Hadeed discovered that it could not match the seven Doe defendants’ reviews with actual customers in its database. Thus, the evidence presented by Hadeed was sufficient to show that the reviews are or may be defamatory, if not written by actual customers of Hadeed.