Virginia Supreme Court Says Court Was Wrong To Force Woman To Change Yelp Review
from the good-move dept
We’ve seen a bunch of stories over the years about local businesses upset about critical online reviews on sites like Yelp and Angie’s List. Sometimes these business owners go to court, but rarely get very far. However, in a hearing last month, a court in Virginia issued a preliminary injunction, telling Jane Perez that she needed to make two changes to reviews she posted on those two sites of DC contractor Christopher Dietz. Dietz had sued Perez for $750,000 over the negative reviews, and arguing that Yelp and Angie’s List should be held responsible as well, despite their clear protections under Section 230.
The preliminary injunction made her change some claims about possible “stolen” jewelry as well as her characterization of a small claims lawsuit that Dietz had filed against her for non-payment (that case was dismissed due to procedural failures, though she described it as a win for her on summary judgment), but did allow the rest of the posts to remain. This was a partial victory for Perez, since Dietz wanted the entire posts removed, but it still raised some significant questions. Public Citizen and the ACLU asked the court to review, noting that this was classic prior restraint:
Thus, even in jurisdictions that allow an injunction against the repetition of a libel that has been found false and defamatory after a full trial, or in which that issue remains open, injunctions may not issue against speech that has not been finally determined to be false and defamatory. For this reason, courts have rejected attempts to obtain preliminary injunctive relief against Internet speech.
Basically, a court cannot issue an injunction on speech that might be defamatory. It needs to wait until it’s actually been proven to be defamatory. As the filing notes, in this case, the court didn’t even find that Dietz had shown a “likelihood of success” let alone determined that the statements were defamatory.
Upon further consideration whereof, the Court also finds that the preliminary injunction was not justified and that the respondents have an adequate remedy at law.
Good news for free speech, though it’s unfortunate that the lower court didn’t get it right the first time. Of course, as always, this kind of thing makes you wonder what good it could have possibly done Dietz to file this lawsuit. Whether or not the original allegations were true, now he’s made it clear that he’s willing to sue over reviews as well. It seems like most people might see that and decide to hire a contractor who not only has good reviews, but doesn’t have a history of suing his customers over their online reviews.