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Eater did a good job of summarizing the recent case against a Yelp user found guilty of defamation for posting fraudulently negative reviews. The case amounted to “nothing done,” as the plaintiff in the case was also found guilty of defamation, and the two rulings effectively cancelled each other out. Still, the case sets something of a precedent for Yelpers, who have heretofore enjoyed a kind of protection racket against small businesses.

For restaurant owners, the racket can consume a lot of time. Owners and managers have to contact angry Yelpers and essentially bribe them into changing their reviews. It’s not pretty, but it’s all part of doing business these days.

Now, in light of the ruling against the Virginia Yelper, restaurants could seek libel charges instead.

Intriguing.

A bigger question is whether the blame lies with Yelp, or with its users, but the company has thus far managed to deny its culpability for its users’ potential calumny.

Successful rulings against Yelp and Yelpers tend to arise when the reviews are outright fraudulent, such as when a reviewer writes about a business he never even patronized, or when people create sock puppet accounts to assassinate a business’ rating via phony reviews. But, sooner or later, some judge is going to have to recognize the fact that Yelp reviews have a serious and real impact on business, and that reviewers who abuse the public forum have to be held to similar standards as professional journalists.

Ruth Reichl, in Garlic and Sapphires, recounts an anecdote where she referred to a very nice restaurant’s antique decor as “ersatz.” The Times had to print a correction after the restaurant’s owner threatened to sue based on the fact that his antiques were genuine, and provably so, and Reichl’s comment could have constituted libel, however slight. A defamatory statement would have to be both damaging to the business, and untrue. But at what point are the opinions of Yelpers subject to that distinction?

Comparing negative Yelp reviews can illuminate. Consider a review for Great Wall, a cheap Chinese takeout joint in North Park, where the angry Yelper opens with, “Me no likey! Me no likey!” and continues with, “Their food looks like meat stewed in hospital waste, and smells like a Chinaman's vomit.”

Offensive? Yes. Libelous? Probably not. The user’s statements, however racist, represent her opinions. The First Amendment protects her right to deride Chinese culture for the sake of proving a point.

Consider a different review, this time for Hong Kong, a similar restaurant in Hillcrest. The Yelper in question ("M M") says, “avoid like the plague….cause you’ll probably get that there too.” "M M" also alleges that Hong Kong’s food made him sick and gave him “the shits.”

Hong Kong restaurant probably doesn’t care about that, but if that were a review of, say Mille Fleurs, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see ownership take action. Accusing a restaurant of causing illness is a serious matter, especially without proof of the infecting agent. A food poisoning scare, which later proved to be false, killed Chi Chi’s restaurant. Pitching around, “this place made me sick,” or any variant thereof, without proof, is serious business.

For the record, Hong Kong is the better restaurant...but that's just the opinion of one restaurant critic!

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Comments

ImJustABill March 1, 2014 @ 9:19 p.m.

" But, sooner or later, some judge is going to have to recognize the fact that Yelp reviews have a serious and real impact on business, and that reviewers who abuse the public forum have to be held to similar standards as professional journalists."

I totally disagree. It's ridiculous to expect average yelp reviewers to adhere to similar standards as professional journalist. Professional journalists have far more training, skills, and often access to legal resources than an average person.

Certainly any time it can be proven that someone has committed fraud or libel then action should be taken. But I think the yelp lawsuits are troubling because they imply that an entity with superior monetary resources can easily thwart the first amendment rights of a yelp reviewer.

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Ian Pike March 1, 2014 @ 10:56 p.m.

If that's the case, then pity the Yelp users who libel the wrong business. The first amendment gives citizens no right to defame, and that's happening on Yelp every day. In some ways, the joke's on the Yelpers, since Yelp has maintained a "we aren't responsible for our users' opinions" stance, despite the fact that it actively promotes and publishes these same opinions. Yelp, which has more money and legal recourse than the vast majority of newspapers and magazines, could easily defend itself against almost any libel suit brought against it, or at least buy its way out of trouble. Yelp users, on the other hand, probably won't win defamation suits if they start to appear.

As for their obligation to act with integrity, Yelpers should absolutely be held to the same standards as other private citizens. Yelp pages are often the first search hits for businesses, so those Yelp reviews will be read by many people, and their impact approaches the power of a newspaper column in terms of reaching an audience and affecting a business' public image.

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Ian Pike March 2, 2014 @ 6:29 p.m.

6+ years ago, Yelp stood accused of basically blackmailing businesses by forcing them to pay for better exposure and to have positive reviews display more prominently. Ever since then, its objectivity has been in question, whether or not those practices continue.

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ImJustABill March 4, 2014 @ 7:35 a.m.

If that's true then Yelp has been unethical and should have had to pay in a lawsuit. And been criminally prosecuted.

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Ian Pike March 4, 2014 @ 6:59 p.m.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/14/kelly-calandro-yelp-verace-restaurant_n_1885576.html

This happens all the time. Efforts to prosecute have been uneventful and we may never have conclusive evidence to exonerate or condemn the company.

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ImJustABill March 4, 2014 @ 7:29 a.m.

A "professional journalist" is someone who earns a significant amount of money from journalism.

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Matt101 March 2, 2014 @ 12:41 p.m.

It's true that Yelpers are subject to the same libel laws as anyone else, and that they should be careful to limit negative comments to their opinions ("I think Restaurant X's food and service are both terrible") and avoid statements of "fact" that are provably false ("Restaurant X's burgers contain no beef and are made from the rats that live in the restaurant's kitchen").

But, let's be honest here. Restaurants are not suing because they are passionately dedicated to the truth. They are suing Yelpers because they want to intimidate restaurant patrons so that they don't post negative reviews, ever.

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Ian Pike March 2, 2014 @ 6:26 p.m.

That's impractical. The cost of a frivolous lawsuit would offset any potential gains.

The easiest way that restaurant owners control negative Yelping is to offer grouchy Yelpers the chance to "rethink" their standpoints.

If anything, that encourages negative "reviewing," because, as my mother always said, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

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Dave Rice March 2, 2014 @ 10:34 p.m.

Meanwhile, Amy's Baking Company rakes in the cash off their negative reviews by bringing "hate-[insert activity here]" to dining...

I've had a business owner threaten to sue me for publishing a PM wherein he calls me a "Chicken 5hit" (yes, with a numeral) on the site...my general feeling is that most of the businesses who'll go so far to sue over negative reviews will be piloted by hotheads such as in the Eater example who will shoot themselves in the foot.

Still, a bit chilling to think about the potential repercussions of putting anything negative in the public sphere, even though I'm not really much of a Yelper for the reasons Ian mentions in regard to the site's widely alleged ad sales tactics, and the preponderance of recent reviews of questionable quantity. These days, I let Ed Bed tell me where to eat or, if I've got money burning a hole in my pocket, Misters Pike or Hernandez (it seems I'm already familiar with most of Ian's low-brow favorites).

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Ian Pike March 3, 2014 @ 3:52 p.m.

The Yelp story that I really want to write is about inflation. I need an economist to help me prove it, but my informed guesses lead me to believe that the average Yelp score is well above average. Yelp uses a five star rating system, obvi, but if we were to measure I would wager that the average score for all restaurants is just over 3.5 stars. If that's the case, it would suggest that either Yelp's metrics are faulty or that they were sound and there is inflation in the system whereby n-stars become less valuable over time as there is more input from users.

If anyone knows a statistician who would work with me on this, please let me know.

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ImJustABill March 4, 2014 @ 7:33 a.m.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

If an ordinary citizen has to be careful with his/her comments lest a wealthier entity can squash the comments in court then that is a big prohibition on freedom of speech. Certainly anything dishonest written should be subject to lawsuits, libel and/or slander prosecution. But poorly worded opinions written by people without journalism or legal backgrounds shouldn't be held to the same standards as those written by professional journalists or lawyers.

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Ian Pike March 4, 2014 @ 6:52 p.m.

Libelous speech is not protected by law. Quite the opposite, in fact. People are protected from defamation. And those laws apply to everybody. That's just how laws work. You're talking about "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts" here, but anti-defamation laws don't deal with such conditional statements.

"Well, I'm not a journalist" isn't a sufficient defense in a libel case. That would be like someone caught poaching lobsters saying, "Well, I'm not a professional fisherman."

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