Posting Negative Reviews Could Get You Sued

A San Francisco doctor is suing a patient for posting a negative review of his office on Yelp.com. I'd like to officially give that lawsuit a negative review.

The Yelp Negative Review Lawsuit

First, a little background: The patient, Christopher Norberg, went to see the doctor -- Dr. Steven Biegel, a chiropractor -- following a car crash in 2006. Norberg felt he was billed unfairly. He posted a review stating such on Yelp, a Web site designed specifically for user-submitted opinions.

So where's the problem, you might ask? Dr. Biegel suggests Norberg's review was libelous and caused him to suffer "loss of reputation, shame, mortification, and hurt feelings," as well as "injury to his business and profession," according to a copy of the complaint posted on the San Francisco Supreme Court Web site. Biegel further suggests that the Yelp review "invaded [his] right to privacy."

My Thumbs Down

Here's why I'm giving this negative review lawsuit a negative review, then: There's a clear difference between libel and opinion. Stating your opinion is a protected constitutional right. Biegel's assertion is that the Yelp review could be interpreted as fact rather than opinion. I disagree.

First, Yelp makes it clear that the reviews contained within its site are just that -- reviews. Opinions. Personal experiences.

"Yelp is the ultimate city guide that taps into the community's voice and reveals honest and current insights on local businesses and services," the site's description explains.

That distinction aside, let's take a look at a couple of the specific phrases from the review listed in the doctor's complaint:

• "A friend told me to stop going, cause Dr. Biegel billed his insurance company funny awhile before."

Biegel's complaint says this phrase "suggests [he] is dishonest." I'd suggest that the beginning of the sentence, "a friend told me," makes it abundantly clear that the statement is someone's personal opinion.

• "I saw the guy for two visits, expected a bill for about 125 bucks... So ends up, Biegel billed me for over $500. I called to pay, and he couldn't give me a straight answer as to why the jump in price."

Biegel's complaint: The words "'he couldn't give me a straight answer' suggest [Biegel] was billing in a fraudulent and dishonest manner." Once again, is there really any question we're looking at one person's opinion based on his perspective of his experience?

There are a handful of other similar examples, but you get the gist. Each excerpt appears to me to be quite clear, especially in this context, that it's part of a personal review and one man's personal opinion -- and thus protected speech.

Would You Like a Lawsuit With That Comment?

Ryan Jacobson, an attorney and cochair of the Entertainment Media and Privacy Law Group at Chicago-based SmithAmundsen, says he comes across plenty of these cases, particularly as Yelp-style review sites become more common.

Indeed, a similar case cropped up just this past October when an eBay seller sued a buyer for leaving a negative review on his page. Like in the Yelp instance, the review was posted in an area of the site clearly designated for opinions. The seller just didn't like what it said.

In these sorts of scenarios, Jacobson says the judge is forced to speculate what the writer meant, then consider how an average reader would interpret it within the site's context.

"Courts generally apply a number of factors in evaluating the speech," Jacobson explains. "Opinions are never actionable, but factual assertions that impugn one's reputation, morality, integrity or even ability to competently perform their job can expose the speaker or writer to liability."

These lawsuits, Jacobson believes, can have serious implications when it comes to the practical notion of freedom of speech in the modern world.

"[They] can have the undesired effect of chilling consumers from expressing their opinions online for fear for retaliation in the courts," he says.

Suing Over Opinions: An Opinion

That leads me to my final conclusion: This "I don't like that review" argument is becoming all too common in our engagement-enabling Information Age. Countless companies and individuals are turning to the law when an unfavorable opinion shows up somewhere on the Net, and that's a dangerous door to open.

If a court decides the chiropractor's patient or our eBay feedback fellow were in the wrong, what will that mean for the future of Internet-based community forums? Will we have to eliminate all review-based services and sites? Surely there are many negative opinions out there. If describing an unpleasant experience could get you sued, can these services continue to exist?

Of course, this is all just my opinion. If you disagree, that's fine. Just don't post your negative comments here, or I will sue your pants off.

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