Court Rules Against Yelp and Free Anonymous Speech

The Virginia Court
of Appeals yesterday ruled that Yelp must reveal the identities of
seven anonymous individuals who wrote negative reviews of a
carpet-cleaning business.

Hadeed Carpet Cleaning claims they could not match seven posts
on the business review site to actual customers. Courthouse News
“The business sued the John Doe authors of seven critical reviews
and subpoenaed Yelp to learn the identities of the anonymous
reviewers. Yelp repeatedly refused to respond to it, however,
leading the trial court to hold Yelp in contempt.”

The case reached the state appeals court, which ruled 2-1 that
Yelp cannot conceal the users’ identities. Judge William Petty
wrote the majority opinion, explaining
that “ the freedom of speech—and within this, the freedom to speak
with anonymity—is not absolute.” He believes that “the review is
based on a false statement of fact… and ‘there is no
constitutional value in false statements of fact.’”

that “the Virginia court had no jurisdiction over
Yelp, a California company,” and that the court ignored the
precedents set by
Dendrite International, Inc. v. Doe No. 3
and other cases,
which “require giving the anonymous users a chance to respond and
(more importantly) require the plaintiff to present enough evidence
to prove there’s an actual case.”

Paul Levy of Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy group,
represented Yelp in the case. He
the Washington Times that this was the first time
he’s “seen an appellate court order the identification, the first
case in which I’ve represented a party in which we thought the Doe
was clearly protected and the court said
they were not.” Levy also
a skeptical view of the merits of Hadeed’s claims and
how they were used in court:

They don’t say that the substance is false… They say, well, we
can’t be sure this person is a customer. No one with this pseudonym
from this city is in our customer database. Well, of course! It’s a
pseudonym. They haven’t shown anything that really would lead any
person to believe that this isn’t a customer.


If you’ve been defamed, you ought to be able to [show evidence
of your claim of defamation]… And that’s both what Hadeed didn’t
do here—they just refused—they didn’t do that here and the court
didn’t require them to do that.

The dissenting judge on the appellate court expressed a
similar sentiment, adding that “Anonymous speech is protected by
the Constitution of the United States and by Article 1, Section 12
of the Constitution of Virginia.”

The review website has previously
robust enforcement of its terms and conditions by
removing falsified write-ups and taking action against their
authors. Yelp plans to take its case to the Virginia Supreme

from Hit & Run

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