Joe Hadeed of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning got seven negative reviews on his company’s Yelp page, so he took Yelp to court, the BBC reports.
He believes that the negative reviews weren’t actually written by customers at all. So he sued Yelp for defamation, according to Courthouse News, which has a copy of the ruling.
Hadeed issued a subpoena to Yelp to learn the identity of the anonymous posters, but Yelp refused to respond to it, claiming anonymous speech was protected by the First Amendment.
The court agreed that Yelp must turn over its data on the reviewers. Here’s the relevant bit from the BBC:
In a statement, the judge said: “Generally, a Yelp review is entitled to First Amendment protection because it is a person’s opinion about a business that they patronized.”
He added that users had the right to express themselves anonymously without fear of being identified just because another person disagreed with them.
However, the statement went on to say: “If the reviewer was never a customer of the business, then the review is not an opinion; instead the review is based on a false statement.”
Yelp disagreed with the ruling, because it believes free speech, even anonymous negative commentary on the businesses in its database, will be stifled if commenters are worried their identities may be discovered:
We are disappointed that the Virginia Court of Appeals has issued a ruling that fails to adequately protect free speech rights on the internet, and which allows businesses to seek personal details about website users — without any evidence of wrongdoing — in efforts to silence online critics. … Other states require that plaintiffs lay out actual facts before such information is allowed to be obtained, and have adopted strong protections in order to prevent online speech from being stifled by those upset with what has been said. We continue to urge Virginia to do the same.