Did you know that you could be sued for writing a negative review of a business on Yelp? It’s true. A Virginia-based building contractor has sued one of his former customers for writing a blistering review of his business on the popular review website. According to the Washington Post, Christopher Dietz seeks $750,000 in damages in an Internet defamation lawsuit filed against Fairfax County, Virginia, resident Jane Perez, who claimed in her Yelp review that Dietz caused damage to her home, failed to complete work he said he did, and stole her jewelry. Dietz is also seeking a preliminary injunction against Perez to keep her from writing any more Yelp reviews.
Dietz’s suit against Perez is far from the first lawsuit filed for negative Yelp reviews. Doctors have done it. Dentists have done it. Owners of wedding venues have done it. And unless you’re careful, that restaurant you just called “filthy” might sue you, too. Here’s how to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Speak the truth
You might think that the First Amendment protects your right to say what you like about the businesses you patronize. And for the most part, that’s true. There are, however, limits to free speech in the U.S., and one of those limits is laws against defamation.
Defamation applies to any statements that make someone else look bad to the public. Most of the time, a defamatory statement must be false for the courts to rule it against the law.
So, the number one rule when writing reviews on Yelp or elsewhere online is to be 100 percent factual in your criticisms. Don’t say that a waiter spilled scalding coffee in your lap if he didn’t, or that you were overcharged when you weren’t.
Opinions are better than hard facts
To avoid stepping into factually ambiguous territory, color your review with opinions and emotions rather than exaggerations on the facts.
For example, I once took my dog to a trainer for agility lessons. During a class, the trainer pulled a choker collar extremely tight around my dog’s neck just after feeding him a treat. He immediately stuck out his tongue and the cheese fell out of his mouth, then he cowered away in fear. I was livid, and immediately left the class.
Now, what I might want to say in a Yelp review is that the trainer “abused my dog,” “choked him,” etc. But a better, equally effective way to criticize this trainer would be to say that “it looked as though she choked my dog,” and that her training methods “made me feel extremely uncomfortable.” These qualifiers – looked, feel – allow me to get my point across while avoiding accusing the trainer of something that I might not be able to back up in court. And opinions are, of course, protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Of course, nothing you do can stop someone else from filing a lawsuit to silence a bad review that might negatively affect business. But there are state laws in place that can.
Lawsuits of this nature are called “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation,” or SLAPP. They are filed for the sole purpose of shutting people up by imposing the crushing cost of a legal defense. In response to these speech-chilling lawsuits, a number of states – around 30 so far – have passed anti-SLAPP legislation, which makes it easier for courts to dismiss instances of SLAPP. And while the Federal government has not yet passed anti-SLAPP legislation, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on a variety of cases that help bolster the legal fight against SLAPP.
To get a better understanding of anti-SLAPP laws, click here.
Keep it quick
To sum up, Yelp provides consumers with a great service. But it can be abused by patrons and businesses alike. If you have a negative experience with a business, keep the facts simple and straightforward, and don’t exaggerate. If you don’t believe the straight facts properly express the severity of a situation, feel free to give a scathing opinion to avoid fudging the objective facts in a potentially slanderous way.
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