Many restaurateurs were disappointed by the Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016, signed into law by President Barack Obama in December. It provides no relief to operators who object to the way their businesses are rated online.
Nevertheless, there may be a light on the horizon for hospitality operators who have been burned by unfair online reviews and those who want to avoid this experience.
Keep your eyes on California. That state’s Supreme Court will hear a case that could wind up giving restaurant and hotel operators new legal clout to fight negative online reviews on websites like Yelp.
Dawn Hassell, a San Francisco attorney sued a client over what she said were defamatory Yelp reviews of her legal services.
In filing suit, Hassel expressed a sentiment many restaurant and hotel operators who have experienced negative reviews on sites like Yelp would understand.
“We have an impeccable reputation,” Hassell said of her firm, the Hassell Law Group. “We have a right to protect it.”
A San Francisco judge ruled that the negative reviews that targeted Hassell were defamatory, and ordered Yelp to remove them. The ruling was upheld by a state appeals court. From there, the case was appealed to the California State Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on it this year.
Yelp’s counter argument was that the judge’s order violated a 1996 federal law that has been widely interpreted by courts as protecting Internet companies from liability for posts by third-party users.
Of course, restaurateurs have no problem with reviews based on honest, firsthand experiences. What they do have a problem with are disparaging comments posted on sites like Yelp by people who may not even have had a firsthand experience at the restaurant in question. And hospitality operators definitely have problems with people who negatively embellish actual experiences on online review sites.
Most restaurateurs and hoteliers have found ways to co-exist with online reviews, be they positive or negative. Unfortunately, negative reviews can hurt business and put a damper on staff morale. Running a hospitality business would definitely be easier if there were a legal way for operators to remove blatantly unfair reviews disappear.
This is why Hassell’s case is so important to the hospitality industry. If it is upheld by the California State Supreme Court, it will inevitably be challenged in the federal court system. If it reaches the U.S. Supreme Court and is ultimately upheld, it will greatly level the playing field for hospitality operators who are concerned about malicious online reviews.
“You can give critical reviews about people on the Internet,” Hassell said. “It doesn’t mean it’s going to be defamation. You can’t write untruthful content to hurt somebody.”