What is Yelp?
Yelp, Inc. is an American company that operates an “online urban guide” and business review site. The company’s website began as an email service for exchanging local business recommendations and later introduced social networking features, discounts, and mobile applications.[i] The company’s website contains a discussion forum and other social networking features. It requires reviewers to register and encourages them to create a user profile. It offers “praise and attention” to user reviewers plus special status and social events for its most popular, prolific and “elite” members.[ii]
Simple enough, right? So what’s all the fuss about?
It has become increasingly apparent that writing Yelp reviews may land you in some hot water, which begs the question “Why would writing a negative review get me sued?” The site asks for users to write honest, first-hand accounts of what their experience was like. Yet, when that honest review turns out to be negative/critical, some business owners may not take it so lightly. In the last week or so there have been at least two lawsuits dealing with Yelp reviews, which actually bookend the spectrum of potential outcomes arising from disgruntled reviews. On one end of the spectrum is a review that stated a contractor damaged and stole the reviewer’s property.[iii] The jury came back with a guilty verdict for defamation.[iv] On the other end of the spectrum was a review of a local dentist, who attempted to sue for defamation, but his claim was dismissed referencing California’s Anti-SLAPP Law.[v]
Ok, so the Anti-SLAPP Laws will protect me then?
Not necessarily. California provides a special motion to strike strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), which is intended to put a quick end to nonmeritorious lawsuits designed to suppress speech on a matter of public concern.[vi] Public reviews of businesses, health care, restaurants and any other type of service provider, have been around since the first customer was served. Services like Yelp have made the dissemination of these reviews readily available to anyone willing to read them. One would think that every state would have an Anti-SLAPP statute protecting the public, but that is not the case, as 21 states have not enacted an Anti-SLAPP law.[vii] One of those states, Virginia, was home to the first review I mentioned where the defendant was found guilty of defamation after being sued by her contractor. Would an Anti-SLAPP statute have helped her? Should every state have a statute similar to California? It’s tough to say, but one could easily make the argument that Anti-SLAPP laws unnecessarily expand our First Amendment Rights.
[iii] Perez v. Dietz Development LLC, Va. Cir. Ct., CL 2012-16249, jury verdict 1/31/14.
[v] Rahbar v. Batoon, Cal. Ct. App., No. A136463, unpublished 1/31/14.
[vi] 23 HLR 221 (Issue No. 6, 02/06/14).
[vii] Public Participation Project, Anti-Slapp.org, http://www.anti-slapp.org/your-states-free-speech-protection/ (last visited February 8, 2014).