A woman has been ordered to pay the owner of a floor-refinishing business $1,000 after leaving a series of comments on Yelp and a local site, which a court found ventured beyond free speech into defamatory. The woman and her legal representation disagree and plan to appeal.
Do you think reviewers should be able to be fined over comments left on Yelp? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Emily Fanelli (a/k/a Emily Olivo) sought the work of Mr. Sandless, owned by Matt Gardiner. He reportedly did work on her floors for $695, but Fanelli wasn’t satisfied, or was upset rather, with the finished product, claiming Gardiner had “destroyed” her home. She called him a “liar” and “con artist” on the site where she found his ad, and then said left this comment (via NY Daily News) on his Yelp listing:
“this guy mat the owner is a scam do not use him you will regret doing business with this company I’m going to court he is a scam customers please beware he will destroy your floors he is nothing by a liar he robs customers, and promises you everything if you want s— then go with him if you like nice work find another he is A SCAM LIAR BULL—-ER.”
She then left additional comments on Yelp a couple weeks later telling other users to email her for more details about her experience. The judge in the case decided that one was OK, but that her previous two comments were libelous. It was words like “con artist” and “scam” that did the trick, though Fanelli’s defense would argue that context is key here, and likely will do so in the appeals process.
Yelp probably isn’t a fan of the judge’s decision as it has tried in the past to get reviewers to not be afraid to say what they think about businesses. The company’s senior director of litigation said this in a blog post early last year:
Because of the First Amendment, it is rare that we hear about consumers being sued for exercising their right to free speech — even with nearly 50 million reviews contributed to-date. That’s probably why there’s been a fair amount of media attention surrounding a couple of recent cases in Virginia. But despite this press hype, it’s important to keep in mind that the First Amendment guarantees the rights of consumers to express their opinion about a business and honestly describe their experience.
These strong protections are why these suits are unlikely, especially when a reviewer has thoughtfully shared their views (Yelp provides guidance on how to do this in our Content Guidelines). We find the most useful reviews include a rich narrative, a wealth of detail and perhaps a helpful tip for others who are looking to spend their hard-earned money at that local business.
As we mentioned a couple weeks ago, litigation is not a good substitute for customer service. Businesses that try to sue their customers into silence rarely prevail, end up wasting their own time and money and usually bring additional, unwanted attention to the original criticism (a phenomenon known as the Streisand effect). Many states (though, unfortunately not Virginia) have laws designed to further protect consumers from being intimidated or silenced by these types of lawsuits. These Anti-SLAPP laws allow consumers to quickly end meritless lawsuits and require the business to pay the consumer’s legal fees when the business loses.
The bottom line: reviewers who share their experiences help their fellow consumers as well as good businesses and provide the marketplace with valuable information, so we will continue to fight for the protection of free speech for all internet users. We know the reason an average of 117 million monthly unique visitors turn to Yelp is because consumers trust the content they are reading and find it useful in helping them make a spending decision.
A Yelp spokesperson basically echoed these sentiments in so many words in a statement to the NY Daily News, which reported on this most recent case earlier.
Yelp has actually fought legislation that enables outcomes like this case’s.
What do you think of the ruling? Should Fanelli have to pay? Discuss.
Image via Yelp (Flickr)