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Should reviewers be held accountable for negative reviews on Yelp?

February 19, 2014

By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer

Imagine having the worst dining experience ever. The server messed up your order, the food was cold, and the manager was unapologetic. A dinner this bad might lead to a nasty review on Yelp. But should you be held accountable for any lost business when the owner says the review is inaccurate and defamatory?

A $750,000 lawsuit in Fairfax County, Va., says yes, you should.

A Washington, D.C.- based contractor is suing Jane Perez because of her one-star review on Yelp. The contractor, Christopher Dietz, contends the review was malicious, made false claims, and seriously hurt his business.

Perez hired Dietz’s company to do some work on her house. Perez says that the contractor’s workers damaged her house, charged her for work they didn’t do, and possibly stole some jewelry. Incensed, Perez went on Yelp and Angie’s List and posted a harsh one-star review, closing one post with “Bottom line do not put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor.”

Dietz says that the accusations are unfounded and that he did the work that Perez contracted him to do. After the job, Dietz says, his eight-year-old design and contracting company experienced a decline in work because of the negative reviews, costing him $300,000 in business and also personal stress. He said Perez’s comments about the missing jewelry and trespassing falsely implied that he had committed crimes.

First Amendment advocates and businesses are nervously watching the case. Advocates for freedom of speech argue that platforms like Yelp and Angie’s List help consumers and that commenters should be allowed to post their opinions without fear of being sued. They say that if Dietz wins, businesses will be able to stifle negative reviewers with the threat of lawsuits for expressing their opinion.

Business advocates contend that business owners should be able to defend themselves against inaccurate reviews. They say that the Internet allows false claims to live on a site forever and be spread, with no recourse to correct them unless the business owners take legal action.

The Virginia case is one of a growing number of suits filed over online reviews as sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor and Angie’s List have grown more popular. Most suits have failed because the courts have sided with the free speech right of commenters to express their opinion. But lawyers caution that commenters need to be aware of what defamatory speech is. In Virginia, someone can be found liable for defamation if he states or implies a false factual statement about a person or business that causes harm to the subject’s reputation. Opinions are generally protected by the First Amendment.

What do you think?

Should Yelp reviewers be held accountable for what they write on the website? Do businesses need a way to defend themselves against negative comments? Is this a free speech issue? How should the case be resolved? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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