The Virginia Court of Appeals recently ruled that Yelp! is required to disclose the identities of 7 anonymous posters of reviews of a business. The Court reasoned that if the reviewers are customers of the business, their opinions are protected by the First Amendment, but if they are not real customers, their reviews are false statements that are not protected. The problem is, the litigants cannot determine whether they are real customers unless their identities are known.
Here is the Court’s explanation:
“Generally, a Yelp review is entitled to First Amendment protection because it is a person’s opinion about a business that they patronized.
“The anonymous speaker has the right to express himself on the Internet without the fear that his veil of anonymity will be pierced for no other reason than because another person disagrees with him,” Judge Petty wrote.
However, the court said that First Amendment rights do not cover deliberately false statements and agreed that Mr. Hadeed provided sufficient reason to think the users might not have been customers.
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” and not subject to First Amendment protection, the opinion stated.
The case is Hadeed Carpet Cleaning v. Does, Yelp Inc.