Small businesses may no longer have to worry about negative Yelp reviews, provided that the reviewer was never actually a customer.
That's according to a decision from the Virginia Court of Appeals, which this week ruled the popular website must disclose the names of seven reviewers who anonymously slammed Richmond-based Hadeed Carpet Cleaning.
The court held that the reviews were not protected First Amendment opinions if the reviewers were never customers and therefore making false claims.
Raighne Delaney, the lawyer representing store owner Joe Hadeed, told the The Washington Times the ruling upholds a lower court statute that will allow judges to decide whether business owners may have a legitimate legal case against online reviewers or another compelling reason to get their names.
In his 25-page majority opinion, Judge William G. Petty wrote, "a Yelp review is entitled to First Amendment protection because it is a person's opinion about a business they patronized," and anonymous reviewers do have the right to express themselves without fear of disclosure.
However, Petty wrote, the First Amendment does not cover false statements. After searching through his customer database, Hadeed had reason to believe the reviewers were never customers of the business, so the "review is not an opinion" but "based on a false statement."
Paul Levy, an attorney who represented Yelp, said the ruling will "make it more difficult for the marketplace of ideas to get valuable information about companies."
"I’ve litigated in many cases for 14 years, and it’s the first time ... in which we thought the [anonymous party] was clearly protected and the court said they were not," said Levy.