Review sites like Yelp walk a fine line between fairness and free speech. Everyone has a right to express their opinion. . . unless that opinion is actually a pack of lies. The tricky part if figuring out whether an uncomplimentary review is true and helpful, rather than an act of revenge.
Back in 2012, a woman posted a 1-star review about a lawyer and was promptly sued by said lawyer who said the review was defamatory. The lawyer took the case all the way to court, the reviewer no-showed (not surprisingly) and the lawyer won the case. As part of the settlement, the lawyer got a court order forcing Yelp to remove said review, immediately.
A done deal.
Except that Yelp’s lawyer didn’t see it that way. He went to court saying that “Yelp’s rights and interests to maintain its site as it deems appropriate [were] injuriously affected by the judgment.” In other words, forcing Yelp to remove bad reviews undermines Yelp’s entire reason for being.
The judge didn’t see it that way. It took a few years of discussion, but this past week, the court handed down a ruling on the original ruling. Yelp must comply and not only remove the first review, but other reviews from other Yelpers whom the lawyer claims were all written by the same woman or friends of the woman.
Yelp spokesman Vince Sollitto is not happy:
“In a single jumbled ruling, the court managed to contravene and contort longstanding precedent concerning the First Amendment, constitutional due process, and Sec. 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act. It gives those who dislike certain speech — here, a lawyer who was upset at reviews from her clients — the ability to require their removal while denying the website hosting that speech the ability to defend its editorial rights to publish the speech or rebut the claims.”
As the lawyers have pointed out, slander isn’t covered by the First Amendment, but was this woman’s review actually slanderous? Could it be that she was an emotionally overwrought human being who expected more from a lawyer than she got? Would potential clients actually hold this review against the law firm?
Here’s the funny thing. I did a little detective work and found that the law firm in question has 23 5-star reviews and 1 1-star review. 1 bad review from a very upset woman. The lawyer posted a rebuttal and still felt the need to sue the woman to have this review removed? What’s worse, a single bad review or a Yelp notation telling potential clients that this lawyer will sue you if you write a bad review?
Bottom line: professionals have a right to protect themselves against false accusations online, but four years of litigation just to get a couple of 1-star reviews removed from Yelp seems mighty excessive.