Public Citizen Defends Consumers’ First Amendment Rights to Criticize a Business On Yelp


Our law firm is devoted to protecting consumers’ First Amendment rights to truthfully and accurate criticize businesses particularly businesses who advertise heavily on the internet. Consumers should be able to vigorously voice their opinions about car dealers and other businesses who engage in fraudulent advertising and other unfair business practices. Most big consumer businesses now force consumers to agree to secret binding arbitration of disputes in arbitration fora that often are stacked in favor of business or which business funds pay for. This makes online criticism more important as long as the critic attempts to be truthful and honest and isn’t acting a business in reckless disregard of the truth. In that regard with we were very interested to see a new posting by Public Citizen on the subject of protecting online criticism.

Paul Alan Levy reports about Public Citizen’s recent efforts in a defamation suit allegedly designed to stop citizens from criticizing a carpet cleaning business on Yelp:

You can’t live in the DC area and not encounter the pervasive advertising for Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, from mailed coupons and display advertising in the Washington Post that promise unbelievably low prices, to classic rock broadcast from the “ Studios” and advertising during Washington Capitals games. But regular users of pages about Hadeed on the Yelp web site quickly learn Hadeed’s dirty secret — more than thirty of the eighty-odd reviews posted there complain that the advertised prices are routinely not honored.

Even one of Hadeed’s Yelp admirers, who gave Hadeed four of five stars for the quality of its work, ridiculed the complainers in these terms: “I can give a life lesson to the people who only wanted the $99 special, there is no such thing! Every wall to wall cleaning company uses that as a way to lure you in but no one will charge you $99.” She also gives her secret about how to protect against unannounced price increases from Hadeed: pay in advance!
Apparently hoping to deter further criticism, Hadeed has singled out seven anonymous reviewers as defendants in a defamation lawsuit. It does not deny that its service staff routinely demand higher-than-advertised prices when they show up to do the work, but instead claims that it suspects, based on a mysterious review of some customer database, that these seven reviews were really posted by some unnamed competitor. Unlike some other ISP’s lately, Yelp is standing up for its users’ privacy, and so refused to comply with a Virginia subpoena because (among other reasons) Hadeed never provided any evidence that the gist of the reviews was false. Hadeed moved to compel compliance, and the trial judge, refusing to apply the otherwise-broadly-accepted Dendrite test, ordered compliance because it felt that it was enough for Hadeed to show that the statements “may be tortious.” And when Yelp refused to comply – because Virginia requires non-party discovery recipients to commit contempt of court to get the right to appeal — the court found it in contempt.

In an appellate brief that we have filed today on behalf of Yelp, we make two basic points. First, Virginia should agree with other states that demand both a legal and a factual showing that the lawsuit has merit. In that regard, read carefully, Hadeed’s defamation claim asserts only that the individual reviewers were not really customers, and Hadeed is not defamed by false statements about whether a given defendant was a customer. Nor, indeed, has Hadeed offered any reason to credit its supposition that the seven reviewers were not customers; what evidence there is in the record points in the other direction.

We also argue that a California company like Yelp should not be subject to a Virginia subpoena just because its web site is accessible in Virginia and because Virginia companies like Hadeed advertise on the web site. When AOL was based in Virginia, litigants in other states had to get Virginia subpoenas to demand identifying information about AOL users; by the same token, Hadeed should have to use the normal interstate discovery procedures when it wants identifying information about Yelp users from ISP’s in other states.

The work of Public Citizen to protect consumers’ free speech rights is commendable. If you cannot obtain a free legal defense to defamation suits, consumers must turn to a private attorney. Often times consumers home owners’ insurance provides coverage for defense costs when the consumer is sued for online reviews. We defend consumers in those suits and help them arrange for the defense costs to be covered by their insurance carriers.

Our Chicago libel attorneys defend individuals’ First Amendment and free speech rights to post on Facebook, Yelp and other websites information that criticizes businesses and addresses matters of public concern. Our Chicago Cybersquatting attorneys also represent and prosecute claims on behalf of businesses throughout the Chicago area including in Schaumburg and Mount Prospect, who have been unfairly and falsely criticized by consumers and competitors in defamatory publications in the online and off line media. We have successfully represented businesses who have been the victim of competitors setting up false rating sites and pretend consumer rating sites that are simply forums to falsely bash or business clients. We have also represented and defended consumers First Amendment and free speech rights to criticize businesses who are guilty of consumer fraud and false advertising.

If you are the victim of a defamatory and untruthful attack on your business or a consumer who has been sued to stop you from posting criticism of a business on line, contact one of our Oak Brook and Chicago defamation lawyers for a free consultation at 630-333-0333 or online by filling out our contact us form.

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