Yelp thinks casino mogul Steve Wynn is trying to 'erode your free speech rights'

Yelp New York CitySpencer PlattEmployees of the online review site Yelp watch as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at the new East Coast headquarters of the tech company.

A war of words between Yelp and casino mogul Steve Wynn is getting ugly.

In a post on Yelp’s blog earlier this month, the online review site slammed Wynn for trying to “erode your free speech rights.”

The fight revolves around Wynn’s support for SB 444, a controversial Nevada law that would make it easier for businesses to sue people for “defamatory” activities like posting negative Yelp reviews.

Wynn Resorts wants to partially roll back the state’s protections against strategic lawsuits against public participation, also known as SLAPP lawsuits. Many states have anti-SLAPP laws in place to make it harder for companies to sue anybody who criticises them online.

Yelp has taken several shots at Wynn’s free speech stance in recent weeks, mocking a defamation suit that Wynn lost to hedge fund manager Jim Chanos.

“It’s understandable that Wynn may not like Nevada’s robust anti-SLAPP laws since he recently lost under a similar statute in California, but it would be a tragedy if the state of Nevada allowed the interests of one man to gut a law that is meant to protect the freedom of speech for all Nevadans,” Yelp said on its blog.

Wynn’s camp thinks that Yelp is acting hypocritically. Wynn Resorts told Business Insider that while Yelp was trumpeting free speech in Nevada, earlier this year the company filed a lawsuit accusing several websites of selling bogus positive reviews for local businesses.

“One would assume that if a fake positive review is considered misleading, a fake negative review could be equally misleading to a potential costumer as well as damaging to a corporation or small business,” Wynn’s Vice President of Marketing Michael Weaver told Business Insider.

“Yelp’s claim appears to be a bit counterintuitive, suggesting that manufactured positive reviews can be misleading to the consumer, while simultaneously claiming that fake negative reviews are protected under free speech,” Weaver said.

Steve wynnREUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Ethan MillerWynn Resorts Chairman Steve Wynn smiles as he talks to people at the American Institute of Architects convention in Las Vegas. Wynn Resorts Chairman Steve Wynn smiles as he talks at the Wynn Las Vegas to people in town for the American Institute of Architects convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, May 19, 2005.

A lawyer who has represented Wynn and Wynn Resorts told Nevada public radio that the state’s anti-SLAPP law is too broad and needs to be updated. He also said Yelp imposes too few penalties for lying and that negative reviews irreparably damage small businesses.

“It’s also a mechanism that allows, for lack of a better word, online terrorism and character assassination,” Mitchell Langburg said in an interview with KNPR. “Disgruntled former employees, competitors, dissatisfied customers who don’t just have legitimate complaints but are trying to destroy a businesses reputation can get on yelp and lie about what’s occurred to them, or hasn’t even occurred to them, with relative impunity in the state of Nevada.”

Yelp did not immediately return Business Insider’s request for comment.

People who write negative Yelp reviews have been hit with so-called SLAPP suits over the years. A San Francisco chiropractor, for example, sued a patient for writing a negative Yelp review about a billing dispute, as The New York Times noted.

Wynn’s support for the legislation comes after years of waging war against critics of his business with mixed results. Before losing a defamation suit against Chanos, in 2012, Wynn won $US20 million in a similar suit against “Girls Gone Wild” creator Joe Francis when the adult filmmaker claimed that Wynn threatened to kill him.

The Nevada bill still awaits a final vote.

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