There’s a reason why online commenting and reviewing systems usually have the option to post anonymously. Not everyone wants to write a bad review or leave a scathing comment using their own name, some choose to hide behind a curtain to vent while not fearing that the blowback might somehow end up affecting them offline. A Virginia court has complicated matters for Yelp, it has ruled that the popular review and discovery website must reveal the identity of users who leave negative reviews.
The ruling comes after a lawsuit was filed against Yelp by Joe Hadeed, the owner of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning in Virginia. He claimed that seven users had left negative reviews about his business on Yelp, and lawyers demanded on his behalf that the website reveal the names of those users. The court found that “sufficient reason” had been provided to believe that the users who left negative reviews might not have been customers, which means that they’re not extended First Amendment protection. The judge ruled that Yelp reviews are generally entitled to First Amendment protection because its a person that’s expression an opinion about a business that they patronised, and while agreeing that users have the right to express themselves anonymously without worrying about being identified just because someone else disagrees with them, the judge ruled that if a reviewer was never a customer, then the negative review isn’t an opinion instead it’s based on a false statement, which doesn’t enjoy protection under freedom of speech laws.
Vince Sollitto, a spokesman for Yelp, said that the company is “disappointed” that the Virginia Court of Appeals has issued this ruling which “fails to adequately protect free speech rights on the internet.” Yelp urges the state of Virginia to follow other states’ lead who are tough on protection of online speech.