What the Yelp Lawsuits Mean for You

People Hate Us on Yelp by danoxster from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

People Hate Us on Yelp by danoxster from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

There are a few lawsuits going on right now involving reviews on Yelp. If you are a business owner who is concerned about what people might post about you or a person who likes to post reviews of products and services online, you should be paying attention.

In the first case, the court ordered Yelp to reveal the identities of seven anonymous account holders who are being accused of posting false negative reviews about a business. The owner of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning filed the defamation lawsuit claiming that these people were not customers. Posting reviews of companies you haven’t used is also a violation of Yelp’s terms of service.

The First Amendment protects people’s right to share their opinions, including anonymously. However, it doesn’t protect against defamatory speech. The challenge with anonymous speech is you could be unmasked if you do something wrong or if someone builds a strong case that you could be wrong. These cases are hard because the owner doesn’t know who is posting the anonymous review so they can’t cross check the review with their customer records so they often have to sue to identify the person so they can determine if they’ve been illegally harmed.  This case doesn’t concern me too much as long as the court is applying the proper standards to determine if the plaintiff has shown enough evidence of harm that would warrant a subpoena to reveal the posters’ identities.

In the second case, a contracting company is suing a former customer for $750K for defamation after she posted a negative review on Yelp where she claimed her “home was damaged, she was billed for work that wasn’t done and jewelry went missing after she hired” the company. Defamation generally requires a false statement about a person or entity that’s communicated to a third party, and that hurts the person or entity’s reputation. In this case, the owner claims the review has cost his company business, so there’s his damage. If anything in her review is untrue and led to the drop in business, that’s likely defamation.

Some people are concerned that these cases will prohibit people from posting negative reviews online, even when they are accurate. Given how many Yelp reviews have been posted and how few lawsuits have come out of them, I don’t think this should be a significant concern for Yelpers. I think these cases provide good lessons regarding internet law and etiquette:

  1. If you’re going to post reviews online, make sure you only share your accurate opinion. (BTW – Federal law requires you to only post your honest and accurate opinions.)
  2. The First Amendment protects your right to speak anonymously; however, if someone suspects your speech has harmed them, they may have to sue to get a subpoena for the website to reveal your identity to determine if they’ve been harmed. If you use your real name, they can cross check your review with their records.
  3. If you are a business owner, take care of your customers. If you treat them badly, have low quality products, or provide poor service, they will call you out online.

I also made a video about how to respond to bad reviews online from a legal perspective:

Most states have laws against strategic lawsuits against public participation, called anti-SLAPP laws. These are laws against filing lawsuits that are intended just to shut you up, not to address a situation where a person was legally harmed. If someone files a defamation lawsuit against you because of an online review and you feel like you’re being falsely accused, you should check to see if your state has an anti-SLAPP law.  

If you want more information about internet defamation, please check out my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. It has an entire chapter dedicated to online defamation. You can connected with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Prankk Bros vs Providence Police Officer

 

Alien Invasion Prank by the Freaky the Snowman Guys

Alien Invasion Prank by the Freaky the Snowman Guys

Jay Lichtenberger of Prankk Bros and RipFilms, best known for the Freaky the Scary Snowman pranks and videos asked me for my take on their latest Alien Invasion Prank and their run-in with the police. I’m a fan of Freaky the Scary Snowman and the guys seem to be pretty mindful about what they’re doing to make sure that everyone has a good time.

In their latest stunt, they have one of their guys dressed up as a giant alien who surprises people coming around the corner in Providence, Rhode Island.  They surprised a lot of people (but wouldn’t you be if you encountered a seven-foot tall person?) but everyone on the video seemed to enjoy it. I really appreciated that the alien was careful not to touch anyone initially. Look when he comes around the corner – his palms are open and his hands are up and away from the people.

The alien took a lot of pictures with people, including with someone’s baby at the request of the mother. He gave high fives and hugs, danced with people, and played with someone’s puppy. When the police rolled up, they acknowledged their risk of liability and that they were being careful to which the officer said, “Have fun.”

For at least one of their locations, they had permission from the business owner to carry on with their prank outside the place of business. Despite this permission, a different police officer ordered them to leave. Apparently this is the same officer who gave them a hard time about Freaky. I love how the Providence cop kicked them out but the Newport police officer thought it was hilarious and just watched from down the street.

What about the cop on the alien video who said he told them to stop twice in two days, but from two different locations? I think it’s reasonable for the guys to think that maybe they couldn’t be on public property doing a prank one day but think it might be ok to get permission from the business owner to do the same stunt a different day at the business’ location. If anything, it shows a desire to comply with the law.

The video shows the officer threatening to arrest the guys for failure to move, which sounds like failure to comply with an order from law enforcement, which is a crime. It was interesting that the officer did not cite any other laws that the guys could be accused of breaking. The video also didn’t show the officer say anything about receiving complaints. I wonder if the guys are acting completely within the laws and this officer just doesn’t like them.

I appreciate the other officer who suggested that the guys file a complaint against the officer with internal affairs at the police station, especially when he said, “Don’t let them knock you down either.” What these guys are doing is definitely a violation of social norms; but if it’s not a violation of any laws, leave them alone. If there is a violation, tell them so they know what not to do next time.

The RipFilm guys may want to give up on doing pranks in Providence if filing the complaint against the police officer doesn’t work out. But at least they know that Newport will welcome them with open arms.

If you want more information about how to stay out of troule while doing pranks, please check out my book Flash Mob Law: The Legal Side of Planning and Participating in Pillow Fights, No Pants Rides, and Other Shenanigans.

You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.
You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Go Topless Day 2013

scar web by istolethetv from Flickr

scar web by istolethetv from Flickr

International Go Topless Day is coming up on Sunday, August 25th. I’m not kidding; it’s a real holiday aimed at bringing awareness to gender inequality when it comes to how much of your torso you have to have covered when you walk out of the house.

In every state in the U.S., men can walk around in public without wearing a shirt. The same is generally not true for women. Every state has a law against showing at least part of the female breast in public. In Arizona, women must keep their areolas covered so women can go shirtless in public as long as their wearing at least a pair of pasties, band-aids, or pieces of electrical tape. Other states, like California, are weird and require women to cover not only their areolas but also the bottom half of their breasts at all times. (Who would have thought that California would be more closed-minded than Arizona on this issue?)

There are a handful of cities that have passed local laws that allow men and women to be topless in public – like New York, Washington D.C., and Austin. (I wish I knew that when I was at SXSW.) These laws are technically unconstitutional but the states have bigger fish to fry than to go after a handful of topless women.

Wherez all da love ppl? by TheeErin from Flickr

Wherez all da love ppl? by TheeErin from Flickr

To bring awareness to the inequality between men and women under these indecent exposure laws, Go Topless protests have been organized in a handful of cities. At these events, if it’s illegal for women to be topless in public in that city, men and women are encouraged to dress within the limits of the law for women by wearing pasties, body paint, bikini tops, or the like. If the city law allows both genders to be topless in public, it’s more of a celebration and everyone’s encouraged to bare their chest. (If you want to wear pasties, I strongly recommend Nippies – they’re high quality and have an excellent adhesive.)

Please check out this map to see if there is a Go Topless event being organized in your community on August 25th. If you go, please make sure you act within in the limits of your state and city’s laws and wear sunblock! For my Phoenix people, there will be a Go Topless protest in Tempe starting at 10 a.m. where people will be walking down Mill Ave. sans shirts but with their areolas covered.

If you want more information about decency laws and these types of events, I talk about indecent exposure in relationship to the annual No Pants Ride in my new book Flash Mob Law: The Legal Side of Planning and Participating in Pillow Fights, No Pants Rides, and Other Shenanigans or contact a First Amendment attorney in your community.

You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.
You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Reflections on the Freedom of Speech

 

Improv AZ's Fake Protest Part Deux by Sheila Dee

Improv AZ’s Fake Protest Part Deux by Sheila Dee

Free Speech Week occurs this month!

I was out walking my dog yesterday morning when I received a surprising and disappointing email. I responded with a pretty loud, “FUCK!” I think everyone within a half block of me who wasn’t wearing earbuds heard me. As I finished my walk, I started reflecting on the freedom of speech.

As a flash mobber and an outspoken blogger, I’m grateful we have the freedom of speech in the United States. When I have strong feelings about a topic, I get to express them. People in some other countries aren’t so lucky.

I’m also a big fan of the idea that you have to accept the consequences of what you do and say. Now, I like the word “fuck” as much as I like words like “superfluous” and “misanthropic.” Speech is a wonderful powerful thing. But not everyone likes what I have to say or the way I say it sometimes, but when I say something, I own it. And I completely accept it when people dislike me because I share my points of view. I may not like it when people disagree with me, but I accept it.

My mantra is “Don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t put on the front page of the newspaper.” The same concept applies to anything in public. If you say it, own it. If you realize after the fact that you said something you shouldn’t have, or you shared your view based on incomplete data, apologize for it.

Despite our right to share our feelings and opinions, the freedom of speech isn’t completely free. We accept restrictions on our First Amendment rights based on time, place, and manner all the time. We can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre where there are no flames present. We can’t threaten the life of the President. We accept that you must be 18 years old to purchase or create pornographic images. I won’t wear my shirt that says “Do Epic Shit” across the back to establishments where children are generally present, or at least I put a jacket over it. We accept these limitations as necessary for the betterment of society.

When we celebrate our right to the freedom of speech, we need to respect others’ right to express themselves too. There are times when I hear people who make my stomach churn and my blood boil and the only thing I can do is walk away, which is not always easy when you live in Arizona. But I respect their right to express their views.

A few years ago I was on a run and I encountered a group of people protesting in front of a Planned Parenthood. As I approached them I cheered, “Go First Amendment!” When one of them offered me a pamphlet, I declined and said, “Oh no. I support abortion.”  If I want to dance in the streets and express my views in my forum, I have to respect their right to peacefully protest on public property.