Can Businesses Sue Online Reviewers if They Don’t Like What a Review Says?

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to a news story from ABC, which raises the issue of businesses suing individuals who post negative reviews.  Although this brief clip mentions TripAdvisor and Yelp, the main story really centers around one man who posts a negative online review on Angie’s List about his contractor, and who later finds himself with a letter from the contractor threatening legal action.  What seems even more outrageous is that, after reading the man’s review, the contractor withdrew the 10-year warranty on the remodeling work that he had done on the man’s kitchen!

(Just in case you don’t feel like watching the 2-minute clip, here’s the spoiler alert: In the end, the contractor does reinstate the warranty.)

ABC offers three bits of advice for reviewers, for avoiding similar problems with businesses they may wish to critique online:

1)      Before entering into a relationship with business, make sure to read the fine print in the contract, to ensure that there is nothing preventing you from writing about them online.

2)      Write only about your opinions, and include phrases such as “I think” or “In my experience.”  (This one is my favorite, of course, since it seems to imply that without these linguistic “subjectivizers,” the status of a claim made on a review site might be something OTHER than one’s opinion…???)

3)      When possible, include evidence to support your claims.  (for example, a photo of the bad meat in your sandwich.)

What is evident from this story is that businesses are definitely feeling the impact of online reviews. (Probably smaller businesses are feeling this even more than larger corporations.) And what’s more, they are trying to do as much as they can to not only manage their reputations, but also – in some cases – to defend themselves and to fight back when they feel they have been characterized unfairly.

I also think that this is fantastic example of what is undoubtedly a huge grey area in the legal realm: when it comes to posting opinions about others online, there’s a fine line between free speech and libel.

Whether it’s right or wrong, I predict that we will be seeing more responses like this from businesses in the future!

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