ALEXANDRIA, Va. — On Jan. 7, the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled that online review site Yelp must release the information of seven reviewers who used the site to air their grievances with a carpet cleaning business. The owner of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning claimed the reviewers were not actual customers of the business, and intends to sue the reviewers for defamation.
Hadeed Carpet Cleaning filed a defamation claim against the reviewers and subpoenaed Yelp for their identities, which Yelp declined to disclose, citing the First Amendment.
While the Court of Appeals agreed that the reviewers have a constitutional right to speak anonymously over the Internet, it found that Hadeed Carpet Cleaning “met the statutory standard for requiring Yelp to disclose the identity of the … defendants.” Under Virginia’s statute, the party claiming defamation only needs to show that they have “good faith basis” to believe that the reviews were defamatory.
The court found that “the statements are tortious if not made by customers of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning and the identity of the communicators is essential to maintain a suit for defamation.”
Under normal circumstances, a Yelp user is entitled to First Amendment protection because a review is his or her opinion about a business he or she patronized. But if the reviewer has not patronized the business, then the review is not protected because “there is no constitutional value in false statement of fact,” the ruling states.
Yelp has already stated that it will appeal the decision. The company argued that Hadeed Carpet Cleaning needed to provide sufficient evidence to support its defamation claim before the anonymous reviewers are forced to reveal their identities. Yelp also argued that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction to subpoena its documents.
"Other courts and other states have shown support for citizens' First Amendment right to speak anonymously,” Yelp said in a statement. “Consumers may feel the need to speak anonymously for privacy reasons or for fear of unfair retaliation by a business.
“This ruling could have a chilling effect on free speech in Virginia and Yelp will continue to fight to protect consumers' privacy and free speech rights. This ruling also shows the need for strong state and federal legislation to prevent meritless lawsuits aimed solely at stifling free speech."