Disgruntled unhappy customers often jump on online review forums to vent over the real and imagined offenses of hapless small businesses that can't help but wonder if such online attacks are from customers or unscrupulous competitors.
Hadeed Carpet Cleaning in Alexandria, Virginia, ran into this situation on Yelp, an online review service. The owner suspected that a lot of these negative reviews were not real, but fakes from competitors trying to pull the rug out from underneath them, as it were.
So he sued seven of the anonymous reviewers and asked the Virginia courts to force Yelp to reveal the reviewers' identities.
If the reviewers were really customers, their reviews would be protected free speech — and their identities should not be revealed. But, if they were fake attacks by non-customers, their reviews could be defamatory — and their identities should not be protected.
After a fight over revealing their names, Courthouse News Service reported, the Virginia Court of Appeals agreed, 2-1, that Yelp must identify the seven users accused of defamation.
Judge William Petty said "the right to speak with anonymity is not absolute," according to Courthouse News Service.
The story quoted from Petty's opinion: "Generally, a Yelp review is entitled to First Amendment protection because it is a person's opinion about a business that they patronized. But this general protection relies upon an underlying assumption of fact: that the reviewer was a customer of the specific company and he posted his review based on his personal experience with the business."
But, Petty continued, if the assumption that a reviewer was really a customer is false, then the review is based on a lie. And if it is based upon a lie, this weakens the First Amendment protection argument. The judge also said the identity of the reviewers is essential to move forward in the case.
The Consumerist calls the decision "a win for the business and an apparent loss for reviewers in terms of First Amendment rights — if they are in fact, customers of the business."
In any case, the negative reviews may have had an effect, according to the Marina Times: "In Hadeed's case, he says that following the rash of negative Yelp reviews his business sank 30 percent, forcing him to sell six trucks and lay off 80 workers."