Virginia Supreme Court: Businesses Can’t Censor Yelp Reviews Until They Prove Statements Are Libelous

As we’ve covered numerous times, online review sites like Yelp can become a nasty battleground between unhappy consumers and business owners who take issue with what they claim are overly negative, sometimes malicious, comments. Last week, Virginia’s highest court ruled against one such business that had tried to squelch a customer’s reviews.

The backstory on this one is a bit complicated, but we’ll try to do our best to sort it out.

A couple years back, a woman in Virginia hired a contractor — someone she’d apparently known since high school — to do some work on her house. He claims that she demanded work that was outside the scope of their agreement and that when he refused to perform this gratis work, she locked his crew out of the property and subsequently refused to pay. This was followed by a lawsuit seeking payment for work done on the house.

But it’s what happened after that lawsuit was resolved (by summary judgment) that is at the heart of this particular complaint.

After that legal matter was out of the way, the homeowner apparently posted reviews of the contractor’s work on Yelp and Angie’s list.

In his lawsuit — filed in the Fairfax County, VA, Circuit Court last October [PDF] — the contractor alleged that statements made in these reviews accused him of theft and made false claims about the work that had been done. The plaintiff asked the court at the time for a preliminary injunction to have these reviews taken down pending the outcome of the case.

In early December, the judge held a hearing on the request and though he denied the full injunction, he did order the homeowner to revise one statement made in her reviews. He also ordered her to refrain from writing about a specific topic in any future reviews she posts.

Seeing this as a violation of the rule against prior restraints, as there had been no decision made as to whether or not these contentious statements were defamatory, the folks at Public Citizen (which has an archive of all the court docs related to this case) drafted a motion for the homeowner’s attorney to file, “reminding the court of the rule against prior restraints and of the fact that this rule flatly forbids any preliminary injunctions against repetition of allegedly libelous statements.”

A petition was filed with Supreme Court of Virginia to review the lower court’s ruling, and last week the Virginia Supremes reversed the trial judge’s orders with a very short statement.

“Upon further consideration whereof, the Court also finds that the preliminary injunction was not justified and that the respondents have an adequate remedy at law,” reads the ruling.

The contractor’s case will continue on and, if a judge or jury rules that the statements made in the homeowner’s reviews are defamatory or libelous, then it can receive damages and the reviews can be taken down or edited.

“The decision confirms the importance of not shutting down public discussion on the Internet just because someone doesn’t like what’s being talked about,” said Paul Alan Levy, an attorney for Public Citizen. “Review sites like Yelp are vehicles for the free flow of ideas by helping consumers make informed decisions on how to spend their hard-earned dollars.”