Xavier Breath goes to his local barbershop, the Best Little Hairhouse in Texas, looking for a cut and a new hairstyle to replace his tired comb over. His young stylist recommends a “Justin Bieber” cut, which she says is very popular. Xavier does not know who Justin Bieber is, but agrees to try it out. After an hour in the chair, Xavier looks in the mirror and is very, very unhappy with his $45 haircut. He complains to the owner and demands a refund, but the owner tells Xavier that her stylist did the best she could with the little hair that she had to work with. Xavier leaves the salon in a rage and immediately gets on Zelp.com (an online website where users can leave reviews of various local businesses) and posts a scathing and exaggerated review of the Best Little Hairhouse in Texas. The owner sees the nasty post and brings suit against Xavier for defamation claiming that the untruthful review was hurting business. Will the owner prevail?
Maybe. As the popularity of websites such as Yelp, Angie’s List and Facebook continue to soar, so too have lawsuits brought by companies against those who leave critical comments online. First Amendment activists argue that these lawsuits, often referred to as SLAPP lawsuits (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), can have a chilling effect on free speech. Nearly 30 states, including Texas, have passed anti-SLAPP laws which work to support Xavier’s defense of freedom of speech. Whether Xavier will be liable will depend largely upon whether his critical review of the Best Little Hairhouse in Texas was truthful.
Tilting the Scales in Your Favor:
For businesses, lawsuits are certainly one avenue to deal with false postings. Sometimes, however, this can lead to further bad publicity. Some businesses manage their online reputation by quickly responding to negative posts. Groups such as Medical Justice seek to protect physicians from internet defamation by having patients sign agreements that give physicians increased control over what patients post online while at the same time fostering a more useful and honest rating system. There are also companies (Looper Reed being one of them) that offer consulting and/or services on how bury the negative review with positive reviews and information. This is particularly effective with Google rankings. For more information on this service, check out http://www.emedialaw.com.
For those leaving an online review, tell the truth. Angry reviewers are prone to seeking revenge by exaggerating the facts and their false statements will serve as a basis for defamation or business disparagement claims.