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.

Filed Under: christopher dietz, contractors, defamation, free speech, jane perez, liability, section 230
Companies: angie's list, yelp


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  1. identicon
    chris furney, 11 Jan 2013 @ 7:14am

    contracting

    I'm almost laughing about the dirt that gets smeared on honest guys by the craigslist commandos types. Here's a good one- two of the help i hired came back another day after i fired one of them, ambushed me, and knifed me in the heart. While i was recovering, i let the lisence lapse. What's a dead man need a contractor's lisence for? So I was getting started again and ran an ad while getting the lisence back together- after open heart surgery. Allow me to say- I've been contracting for some 38 years, and my family for generations. I have spome 8 fulltime years of college in the field.
    So chickie babe tells me all about how im a lying thief because i hadn't redone the license yet. CCB writes me a ticket because i told whoever the anonymous coward is that talks this trash to remove her lies or i'd sue, etc. Really I'm more of a do-it-yourselfer (smile). Make sure you stay under your rock, coward.
    This is for the privilege of working what's left of my body into agony routinely, trying to keep a businesslike face against the pain, sent into filthy diseased messes with lies so im the one who gets sick from their filth instead of the tenants having to clean up after their own filth. To get parasites from their animals that they lied about having- too late. So I get to listen to able bodied young men whine about how hard the work is, when a 53 year old cripple has been running circles around them all day. And go home and lie in bed in agony while the surrounding people scheme how to replace me with one of these idiots (haha). While they plot between themselves how to lie and cheat and murder me to steal what "I'VE" been working for the last 38 years. And of course there is no such thing as a family unit anymore- everyone else knows all about how I should have raised my sons. No help there- or any expected.
    Well, my first contractor's lisence cost me 25 bucks and was done long before all these whining idiots were ever born. Everyone has made such a nasty, paperwork and cost ridden mess out of my family's ancestral way to make a living- YOU CAN KEEP IT. It really isn't worth 25 bucks an hour to hurt myself or get murdered by the filth im forced to associate with, while all the time the cops and the lawyer ask how I get in trouble so much. I get in trouble so much because other people make it, same as their filth- I'm forced to defend myself to survive, and it doesn't seem to dawn on these people that this might entail a bit more exposure than someone who goes home after the 9 to 5. And I'm sick of spending an hour of prep time for every hour of work and having some Asian yammer about how that's too much money. Try tripling it for openers.
    Wallow in it and enjoy it, folks. And the next time you get ripped off no matter which way you turn, remember that it's the punks and the cops both who have left you in that mess. And don't bother calling me. I'm retired.

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