Contractors Lining Up Against Free Speech
from the tragic dept
I’ve recently been dealing with some building contractors over some work, and the process is no fun at all. Finding someone you can trust is a pretty harrowing experience, because if you pick wrong, the consequences can be huge. Online review sites, like Yelp, have actually been tremendously helpful, even if you know to take reviews with a grain of salt (in both directions). At the very least, they provide some good fodder for understanding strengths and weaknesses. Recently, we wrote about a case in Virginia, in which a contractor named Christopher Dietz took a woman, Jane Perez, to court for $750,000 because she wrote negative reviews about him on Yelp and Angie’s List. A lower court had initially told Perez to change her reviews, but the Virginia Supreme Court overturned that, saying that it could not require changes under the 1st Amendment until a full hearing was held on whether or not the content was defamatory.
It’s worth noting that Perez only posted her negative reviews after Dietz had already sued her in small claims court, a case that was dismissed (some of the defamation claim concerns Dietz disagreeing with how Perez described the end result of that court case in her reviews). Dietz has also suggested during a video interview on MSNBC that he wanted to go after both Yelp and Angie’s List, and that they shouldn’t hide behind Section 230 of the CDA. At this point, it would appear that Dietz either does not understand or underestimates the power of the Streisand Effect as well as the importance of free speech and the importance of secondary liability protection for service providers. It’s a trifecta!
Perez has pro bono legal help from Public Citizen and the ACLU, but there are still substantial legal costs that she needs to cover. To help pay for it, she’s put up an IndieGoGo campaign in which she notes that some comments on a popular site for home builders suggest that an association for home builders may be backing Dietz’s lawsuit. The site in question does have a running update on the case, which includes one post where a spokesperson for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry claims that they “support [Chris Dietz] in the quest to right this wrong” and that the organization is “reviewing the case and will determine next steps.” It’s not clear if this means that NARI is actually financially supporting Dietz’s lawsuit, but either way, “supporting” Dietz’s misguided lawsuit still doesn’t seem like a particularly smart stance, for reasons we’ll get to below. NARI could do a lot more good for contractors by teaching them how to properly deal with negative reviews.
That same page includes a couple different reports from other contractors, insisting that contractors need to support Dietz and stop this scourge of people saying bad stuff about them. There’s one post that insists the lawsuit is a good thing, saying it will take a “perfect storm” to lose (unlikely), while also mocking review sites claiming most of his customers have never heard of them. Then there’s another one that mocks both review sites and the ACLU for daring to think that this was an important case.
I can certainly understand why contractors are upset about negative reviews — just as lots of other businesses are worried about negative reviews. It’s no secret that not all reviews are accurate, and it really does suck, emotionally, to see a negative review that’s not true. But there are ways to deal with negative reviews that don’t make the situation worse. Jumping straight to defamation lawsuits generally are the opposite of that. They do make the situation worse. SearchEngineLand has a great post in response to this very case, in which they point out that there are much better ways to deal with negative reviews online. Suing only creates news about those negative reviews — and having it become widely public news that you sued a customer about their negative review seems likely to have a lot more damaging impact on a business than those negative reviews might have had in the first place.
Yes, we live in a legalistic society, where it is the first response of many people to “go legal” when they feel wronged, but in a world where information is widely available, there are often much better ways to respond to “negative” information than going legal. If these contractors really wanted to “support” Dietz, they should encourage more of their colleagues to read the SearchEngineLand article, rather than supporting a dangerous lawsuit that could undermine key principles of free speech or secondary liability.