In what the Washington Times is calling a decision “that could reshape the rules for online consumer reviews,” a

Yelp Defamation lawsuit

Yelp ordered by court to reveal anonymous yelpers

Virginia court has ruled that Yelp must identify seven anonymous reviewers who left negative reviews for a carpet-cleaning business. In turn, the carpet-cleaning business will then be allowed to sue the Yelpers for defamation.

After finding no record that the reviewers were actual, Hadeed customers from a review of its customer database, Hadeed claimed that the negative reviews were false and defamatory.

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.

On Tuesday, the Virginia Court of Appeals agreed, 2-1, that Yelp must identify the users accused of defamation.

To register, Yelpers are only required to provide a real email address, but Yelp records the IP addresses of users.

It seems like a bit of a fishing expedition, wrapped around a catch-22: Hadeed suspects that the reviewers aren’t customers, and if they’re making up facts, they lose First Amendment protection and are liable for defaming him. But Hadeed can’t possibly prove that until he knows their identities, which requires a court to rule that First Amendment protections don’t apply.

Judge William Petty, speaking for the majority, pointed out that even though a Yelper “does not shed his free speech rights at the log-in screen,” that protection is still based on an “underlying assumption of fact” that the reviewer was a customer of the company in question and is subject to defamation accusations. In other words, First Amendment rights do not cover deliberately false statements, and the court decided that Hadeed provided sufficient evidence that the Yelpers were not customers.

http://www.courts.state.va.us/opinions/opncavwp/0116134.pdf