Court Rules Against Yelp and Free Anonymous Speech

YelpYelpThe Virginia Court of Appeals yesterday ruled that Yelp must reveal the identities of seven anonymous individuals who wrote negative reviews of a carpet-cleaning business.

Hadeed Carpet Cleaning claims they could not match seven posts on the business review site to actual customers. Courthouse News explains, “The business sued the John Doe authors of seven critical reviews and subpoenaed Yelp to learn the identities of the anonymous reviewers. Yelp repeatedly refused to respond to it, however, leading the trial court to hold Yelp in contempt.”

The case reached the state appeals court, which ruled 2-1 that Yelp cannot conceal the users' identities. Judge William Petty wrote the majority opinion, explaining that “ the freedom of speech—and within this, the freedom to speak with anonymity—is not absolute.” He believes that “the review is based on a false statement of fact... and 'there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.'”

Techdirt suggests that “the Virginia court had no jurisdiction over Yelp, a California company,” and that the court ignored the precedents set by Dendrite International, Inc. v. Doe No. 3 and other cases, which “require giving the anonymous users a chance to respond and (more importantly) require the plaintiff to present enough evidence to prove there's an actual case.”

Paul Levy of Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy group, represented Yelp in the case. He told the Washington Times that this was the first time he's “seen an appellate court order the identification, the first case in which I’ve represented a party in which we thought the Doe was clearly protected and the court said they were not.” Levy also expressed a skeptical view of the merits of Hadeed's claims and how they were used in court:

They don't say that the substance is false... They say, well, we can't be sure this person is a customer. No one with this pseudonym from this city is in our customer database. Well, of course! It's a pseudonym. They haven't shown anything that really would lead any person to believe that this isn't a customer.

[...]

If you've been defamed, you ought to be able to [show evidence of your claim of defamation]... And that's both what Hadeed didn't do here—they just refused—they didn't do that here and the court didn't require them to do that.

The dissenting judge on the appellate court expressed a similar sentiment, adding that “Anonymous speech is protected by the Constitution of the United States and by Article 1, Section 12 of the Constitution of Virginia.”

The review website has previously exercised robust enforcement of its terms and conditions by removing falsified write-ups and taking action against their authors. Yelp plans to take its case to the Virginia Supreme Court. 

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  • oncogenesis||

    The case reached the state appeals court, which ruled 2-1 that Yelp cannot conceal the users' identities

    We are a nation of laws, but the law always comes down to the opinion of a disturbingly small number of men.

  • Doctor Whom||

    In the case of the Virginia judiciary, men and women who are just itching to tell everyone else how to live.

  • Acosmist||

    Is yelp the one that ghost writes bad reviews of you unless you pay them?

  • Dead or In Jail||

    yes

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Yes, they're fucking extortionists.

  • Rich||

    'there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.'

    Well, perhaps in *theory*. 8-(

  • Doctor Whom||

    What could possibly go wrong with that principle?

  • Agammamon||

    Yeah, that's a weird thing to say since the Supreme Court itself (in cases involving 'stolen valor' - people dressing up as military and sporting honors/ranks they didn't earn) that the freedom *to* lie is constitutionally protected speech - as long as the lie is not perpetrated for gain.

  • Invisible Finger||

    Can't we just assume that everything Yelp publishes is fake testimonials/complaints?

  • Rich||

    "For information purposes only."

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    What detergent do you use to get an ugly Streisand Effect out of a rug?

  • ||

    Shout?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    THAT ONLY MAKES IT WORSE.

  • Juice||

    If I were Yelp I'd still withhold the names. You bet your ass I have contempt of court.

  • Agammamon||

    If I were Yelp, I'd turn over the names and laugh when the plaintiff realizes that all the info in the registration is false.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    False reviews could count as libel.

  • Agammamon||

    The issue here is that the plaintiffs did not show, and the court did not require them to show, that there was libel here.

    All that the plaintiff is asserting is that they have no records of these reviewers being customers and the court says that Yelp must turn over their identities on the grounds that the reviews *may* have been done by someone who wasn't a customer.

    The meat here is the negative review itself (whether or not these reviewers were or were not customers isn't even relevant, only the truthfulness of the comments) and the plaintiff should have to show *how* its libelous before the court allows them to go digging up a defendant to take out their ire on.

  • Byte Me||

    "That the freedoms of speech and of the press are among the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained except by despotic governments; that any citizen may freely speak, write, and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right; that the General Assembly shall not pass any law abridging
    the freedom of speech or of the press, nor the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for the redress of grievances." - Article 1, Section 12, Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia

    The part about being responsible for the "abuse of that right" can only mean peoples sentiment against you if you say things that they don't like. This does not mean that they may use the force of government to silence you.

  • Killaz||

    Disgusting. But for a carpet cleaner getting slammed in reviews we can't have nice things. 1A is worth far greater injustices than that. A fucking carpet cleaning service.

  • Rach||

    I understand this ruling; If Yelp is customers reviewing service they received from a company then it stands to reason that reviews must be from customers of the business.

    Truth is an absolute defense for slander/libel; That is if you were a real customer and got shiity service then you cannot be sued for for saying so. It is a lose/lose for a company to sue that way, bad service in a opinion, suing lets the customer vent in court and you look like a vindictive jerk with bad service.

    But if you are NOT a customer and leave a review stating you were, then that review is a false statement, and libel applies. In this case it seems the Carpet Company is making the assertion that negative reviews are from non-customers claiming to have revived services. There are many reasons other than silencing customers, it could be competitors trying to wreck their reputation, or and ex-spouse looking to extract a pound of flesh.

    In the end I can get behind making reviews of service providers by actual people who used said services.

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