Tale as old as time: woman hires contractor. Woman unsatisfied by quality of contractor's work. Woman takes to Yelp and writes a blistering review of said contractor. If this were a movie starring Jennifer Aniston and Patrick Dempsey, the story would end with the two main characters kissing on scaffolding while upbeat Motown music played (suggestion: You Can't Hurry Love by The Supremes). But it's not, and the contractor responded to the e-bashing by suing the woman for libel and demanding the reviews be edited. The reviews remain intact, but the case has spurred some free speech advocates to push laws that guarantee Americans' right to bitch about stuff on the internet — because, as of right now, it's not exactly clear just how Ether customers can get on underwhelming service experiences without suffering legal consequences.
This whole fustercluck began in 2011, when Jane Perez hired DC-based Dietz Development to help her make some improvements to her new condo and things didn't go well. It's not clear exactly what went down, but in her reviews of the business, Perez insinuated that the owner of Dietz had stolen jewelry from her and damaged her property. A year later, Dietz sued Perez for libel and requested a preliminary injunction forcing Perez to remove parts of the offending reviews. Yesterday, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that while Dietz's libel case can proceed, business owners can't force online reviewers or websites to remove negative commentary as the legal process unfolds.
Advocates for including borderline-unhinged complaining on the internet in the definition of "free speech" have used the Perez case as an example of why it's time for a federal anti-strategic lawsuit against public participation — or SLAAP— law. Without uniform federal protections in place, they argue, litigious owners of crappy businesses could keep consumers silent out of fear of legal retribution and libel suits. According to Politico, these efforts are still fairly embryonic, but groups like Yelp and the Public Participation Project are attempting to push anti-SLAAP laws to the top of political agendas, as relying on online reviews becomes a more ubiquitous consumer practice.
On a personal note, all of this is excellent news for me, because reading angry one star Yelp reviews of restaurants (and one-star reviews of recipes written by people who don't know how to cook and didn't have the right ingredients) is one of my favorite things to do on the internet. Check out this one-star review of the Times Square location of TGI Friday's:
My partner got some other chicken dish. I don't remember which. She said it was too chickeney. Yes, there is such a thing, you know what I mean, there is that weird little vein part that runs through and it just tastes weird and overpowering.
Comedy gold. And here's another one-star review, of a New York City Mexican restaurant that sounds a little like something a diabetic, time traveling Emily Dickinson might write in a letter to her cat,
Please gentle readers, Do Not under any circumstances eat at this travesty of a Mexican restaurant. The food is cold when it's served, a big mistake when serving black beans with rice side dishes, the most basic Mexican dishes taste like crap, and their so called Margarita's are a joke.
I write this review for out-of-towners...we know better...because while I was there bolstering my blood sugar, I saw so many of them ordering God knows what, and looking miserable while they tried to eat their food.
But, if you are diabetic, and forget like I did, to bring a snack or some glucose tabs with you as protection, during a long 2.5 +hour movie, don't hesitate...Please eat there.
The food won't kill you; it will help you make it home, to eat another day, anyplace else but here.
Now this is the kind of free speech we should all be standing behind.