Posted on 20 January 2009.
My company spends a great deal of time searching the internet for good, bad and related information about our clients in order to make sure the “right” information is in the public domain. While bad reviews online are nothing new (and neither is backlash to them, disgruntled companies usually got nowhere when they tried to sue the forum themselves mainly because the Federal Communications Decency Act gives Web sites immunity in libel cases when the comments are posted by users.
Still, businesses can always sue users themselves, and some are starting to do so. One case making headlines here in early January was brought by Steven Biegel, a chiropractor in San Francisco, against a former patient who slammed Biegel on the review site Yelp in November 2007.
Biegel alleges in court papers that he was defamed by Christopher Norberg’s post, in which he complained about a billing dispute. According to the complaint, Norberg said in his post that he was charged more than he expected and that Biegel “couldn’t give me a straight answer as to why the jump in price.” At another point in the post, Norberg wrote that he later “found a much better, honest chiropractor.”
Offering negative opinions isn’t defamatory, but false statements of facts can be. Biegel says Norberg’s statements constitute libel because they suggest he was dishonest.
Biegel’s lawyer asked Norberg to remove the post or face suit. Norberg apparently took down the post, but then submitted a write-up about the threatened lawsuit. “Never in my life would I have imagined being taken to court for a Yelp review, especially for seeing someone for two visits that I felt were not adequate,” he wrote. He also offered to send the original post to anyone who requested it. Today, it can be seen in its entirety as an exhibit attached to Biegel’s lawsuit, posted at Norberg’s site StandForSpeech.com
It’s not clear whether a court will view Norberg’s post as actionable, but it’s certainly plausible that a judge will agree with Biegel that the post contained facts aimed at impugning his honesty. In that case, Norberg could potentially be on the hook for libel, unless he can show that the comments were true.
Certainly, Norberg seems to believe he acted in good faith — and it’s possible he will ultimately prevail. Nonetheless, in many ways, this incident highlights the risks users run when they post to review sites. Consider, if Norberg had made those identical statements to a newspaper reporter, it’s not likely that the paper would have published them without first attempting to verify them. Of course, many newspaper publishers are sophisticated about libel law and have lawyers on retainer who can assist with the hard calls.
But sites like Yelp are under no obligation to vet comments because the sites are immune from defamation suits based on users’ posts. In fact, review sites probably would go out of business if they had to decide whether to print comments in advance. Nonetheless, users themselves are still exposed — and, unlike professional publishers, those users aren’t familiar with the nuances of defamation.
The key here is that when writing reviews and posts, your information MUST be accurate. Not only is it just right, but it’s also the law. You will look extremely silly if your post is exposed as a fake, and the damage will be long term. So keep it straight.
Also, do not forget to put links in your posts that lead back to your site where someone can register for updates, RSS feeds, etc. It makes little sense to draw people in just to let them search around and leave without telling you who they are or why they’re interested in you.