Professor: New ‘Yelp’ Law Is ‘A Big Win For Free Speech’

Robert Donachie | Capitol Hill and Health Care Reporter

A bill that protects freedom of speech online has some business owners worried, but one internet law professor thinks it’s not all bad news for businesses.

The bill, titled the “Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016,” passed the House Sept. 12, and passed the Senate Monday (with no amendments). It now makes its way to President Obama’s desk for approval.

The impetus for the legislation was that a number of consumers found themselves fighting multi-million dollar legal battles after leaving negative, but subjectively honest reviews of companies on sites like Yelp. These stories follow a similar pattern. Companies become outraged at a negative review, and then sue the reviewer for defamation or related free speech exceptions recognized in case law.
The new legislation puts an end to fine print clauses in contracts prohibiting customers from posting negative reviews, and furthermore takes away the right of businesses to sue for damages if the customer disobeys. As a result, it may not be surprising that some business owners are decrying the bill.
While business may object to the legislation in the short-term, since it ostensibly curbs their ability to fight negative consumer feedback, internet professor Mike Grabowski thinks there are some positives for businesses not visible in any cursory review.
“For years, businesses used this practice to intimidate customers, rivals and others from expressing negative opinions about them on online review sites such as Yelp,” Grabowski explains to The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Finally, the law has caught up with technology on this issue.”
Businesses still have some legal recourse if a review is truly defamatory, Grabowski adds. The new law only stops businesses from compelling customers to sign away their First Amendment rights via non-disparagement clauses. “Businesses remain protected against libel,” Grabowski explains. In fact, “the legislation specifically states that this new law does not void libel laws,” Grawboski continues.
The professor says an important thing to note is that just because a review is negative or hurts your feelings does not mean it is libelous. “Libel cases are very difficult to win and, in most cases, aren’t worth the litigation costs,” Grabowski concludes.
If Grabowski is correct, business opposition to the Yelp law, in addition to suing negative customers, may be a huge waste of money.

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