This major article in today's Washington Post concerns what the author claims is
a growing number of defamation lawsuits over online reviews on sites
such as Yelp, Angie’s List and TripAdvisor and over Internet postings
in general. They say the freewheeling and acerbic world of Web speech is
colliding with the ever-growing importance of online reputations for
businesses, doctors, restaurants, even teachers.
The claim by the Post reporter that the number of these suits is "growing" struck me as odd because the author does not cite any statistics to back up his claim. Moreover, he immediately goes on to say that "[n]o one keeps track of how many suits are filed over online reviews, and
lawyers say the numbers are still small but are getting larger." (emphasis added)
We have posted many times here on the provision of the Communications Decency Act — section 230 — that generally immunizes the host of a site on which others post from suits about the content of posts. We have also posted many times on the need to protect anonymous posters. (Many people who post on online rating services, such as Yelp, post anonymously.) The idea there is that someone suing an anonymous poster over the content of her speech should have to meet certain thresholds about the validity of the suit on its merits before she can be identified. After all, we wouldn't want someone who doesn't like to be criticized to be able to use a lawsuit just for the purpose of outing an anonymous online critic with whom she disagrees. And we don't want to encourage people to bring "outing" suits just for the purpose of discouraging future criticism. Paul Levy posted again on this topic yesterday.
I wonder whether the Post article has identified what is really a significant trend about which free-speech and consumer advocates should be worried, or whether there's not much here but some interesting anecdotes. The Post article says that most of these suits are unsuccessful. But one of the cases described in the Post article is cause for some concern. The plaintiff in that defamation case — a contractor accused of damaging the poster's home, not doing promised work, etc. — is asking a Virginia state court for an injunction "to keep [the poster] from writing similar reviews." That doesn't sound like a good idea.
UPDATE: I had posted this entry shortly before Paul Levy posted a short piece on the Post story. I am reposting this now and linking to Paul Levy's post because Paul's post stresses a point I raised only obliquely at the end of my post about the defamation plaintiff's effort to obtain a prior restraint. Paul raises the issue directly and helpfully links to the plaintiff's motion for preliminary injunction.