A landmark decision by the Virginia Court of Appeals will force Yelp to reveal the identities of seven anonymous Yelpers who left negative reviews of a Virginia-based business, ruling that their "comments were not protected First Amendment opinions" if they were indeed fake accounts or not actual customers. The ruling, according to Yelp, could have severe implications on "free speech rights on the internet," allowing business owners to seek out information about their critics (and silence them appropriately).
According to the Courthouse News Service, attorneys representing Hadeed Carpet Cleaning sued seven anonymous reviewers for defamation in July 2012, subpoenaing Yelp for the identities of those who had posted negative reviews. Yelp originally refused, citing First Amendment rights for anonymous internet commenters. But in its decision today, the Court of Appeals upheld an earlier ruling that Yelpers do not receive First Amendment protection if they're making false statements: The Court "noted that the state has its own standards for 'unmasking' those who make potentially libelous anonymous comments online."
In the majority decision, Judge William Petty wrote that "generally, a Yelp review is entitled to First Amendment protection" because it reflects a personal opinion. But he continues: "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 of fact — that the reviewer is writing his review based on personal experience. And 'there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.'"
A Yelp spokesperson told the Washingtonian they were "disappointed" in the court's decision, arguing that Hadeed Carpet Cleaning did not adequately prove the reviewers were not actual customers. (In a statement, a spokesperson pointed out that "other states require that plaintiffs lay out actual facts before such information is allowed to be obtained.") Just last week, Yelp announced the official formation of its political action committee, which will lobby legislators on issues like (wouldn't you know) a federal-level anti-defamation bill. Below, a truncated explanation of the court decision: