The Line Between Free Speech and Defamation

December 13th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

An increase in suing over negative online reviews raises serious questions.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

How much weight do your complaints carry on review sites like Yelp? Maybe more than you think. In fact, according to a lawsuit filed by one business owner, the scathing review that a customer posted on Yelp drove business away, damaging his reputation to the tune of $750,000.

The Washington Post recently reported on the story of Fairfax, VA resident Jane Perez, who found out that what you write online can truly come back to bite you. Perez hired contractor Christopher Dietz to do some work on her home, but after Dietz had finished the job, Perez logged on to Yelp to complain. She wrote, “I was left with damage to my home and work that had to be reaccomplished for thousands more than originally estimated.” She alleged that Dietz “was the only one with a key” when jewelry disappeared from her home and that he trespassed on her property, prompting her to call the police.

But as Perez is now finding out, perhaps taking Dietz to the court of public opinion was not the wisest or most responsible thing to do. Dietz filed an Internet defamation lawsuit against Perez, claiming that he completed the job, didn’t damage the home, was never paid for the work he did and that she demanded that he perform work beyond their contract. As for the missing jewelry, he says that her charges are completely false (the Post notes that Dietz was never charged for either theft or trespassing).

As the Post reports, business owners are increasingly turning to the courts to push back against negative online reviews. With 84 million visitors each month and 33 million reviews, Yelp has become “a legal battleground” where the reputations of businesses can be “made or shredded in a few keystrokes.”

In the case of Christopher Dietz, a Fairfax County court granted a preliminary injunction, ordering Perez to delete her accusations from Angie’s List and Yelp, and barring her from repeating them in new posts, according to the New York Daily News.

Free speech advocates see review sites such as Yelp as critical public forums that hold businesses accountable for the work they do. But from the perspective of the business owners themselves, they say they have no choice but to sue because the Internet’s massive reach makes defamation all the more damaging. A single post, be it true or false, can turn potential customers away and ruin a business. Dietz, for example, estimates that he has already lost $300,000 in business due to Perez’s review.

On the flip side of the case, Perez is now facing thousands of dollars in legal bills, as she has had to defend herself against Dietz’s lawsuit. As she told the Post, she never fathomed that her review could land her in court. She expressed dismay at the situation, saying, “I don’t want to see what happened to me happen to anyone else.”

Business owners have learned that an online review can do irreversible damage, and now the reviewers are learning the same lesson. Is the ability to hide behind a keyboard and ruin someone’s reputation legitimate, or should something be done to change the system of online reviews? Weigh in here.