Last week, in a Fairfax, Virginia courtroom, a jury announced it had determined a homeowner’s Yelp “review” of a local general contractor was in fact old-fashioned slander. It started in 2011, when Jane Perez posted a review that alleged contractor Dietz Development LLC had not only performed shoddy and destructive work on her home without a license, but also that a member of Christopher Dietz’s crew had stolen her jewelry. So Dietz sued for defamation, to the tune of $750,000 in damages, which he may have been awarded had he not responded on the social network with what the jury determined to be defamatory response posts of his own.
This is the latest, most recent blow to business as usual for Yelp, the site where a series of brutal and negative reviews posted by mostly anonymous users, for instance, might accelerate the demise of a newly opened restaurant. Last fall, New York State fined several businesses, including a frozen-yogurt shop in Brooklyn, a total of $350,000 for outsourcing spurious Yelp reviews to services based in Bangladesh and the Philippines. And in early January, the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled that basic First Amendment rights did not extend to seven users who posted negative reviews of an Alexandria-based carpet-cleaning service. Yelp responded to the Virginia Court of Appeals ruling by saying it failed “to adequately protect free speech rights on the Internet” and constitutes an attempt “to silence online critics.”
The site has 117 million users a month, so for now, it’s doubtful that recent legal cases actually imperil what passes for free speech therein. Right now, users who would be better served by going through more traditional channels with grievances are most at risk: Dietz and Perez have been going back and forth in court since early 2012 because of their Yelp antics — the latter also posted on Angie’s List — the process has been arduous and expensive, and now neither party will walk away with damages. “If you don’t have a pro bono lawyer like she did,” Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy tells Yahoo, “it can be quite taxing financially.”