The First Amendment in question
This came across my desk this morning and I want to share it with readers. According to the Washington Post a judge ordered a reviewer on Yelp to delete parts of her review content. Jane Perez, the homeowner was quite peeved with contractor Christopher Deitz. She proceeded to write an angry, one-star review accusing him of damaging her home and charging for work he did not do. The judge stated that the homeowner must delete this accusation from Yelp. The decision by the judge has concerned investors as it raises questions about freedom of speech.
I knew there had to be more to the story and this is what I’ve dug up thus far: The Yelper, Jane Perez, is from Virginia and is being sued for $750,000 by the contractor, Christopher Deitz. She hired the contractor to perform renovations on her home and was so dissatisfied with his work, that she Yelped Mr. Deitz, accusing him of billing her for work he hadn’t completed and shoddy workmanship.
In some serious hot water
Ms. Perez and Yelp most likely would have been fine had she not added that “some of her jewelry had gone missing while he was working in her home and warned readers to avoid hiring him.” Yikes, that last add on has landed Ms. Perez in some serious hot water. I know what many are thinking – hey, this is a freedom of speech issue and she is protected under the First Amendment.
It gets really sticky here. The legal eagles say that people are within their legal rights to post their opinions of a business or a contractor’s performance, but cannot make unsupported allegations. That last ‘but’ is key. If you make untrue statements that damage a person reputation there can be consequences even when it’s an online review.
If you can’t prove what you say, zip it
In a recent post by Cameron Polom on KSBY.com, Dr. Allen Settle, a political science professor at Cal Poly stated that; “Once you make a personal statement about a person’s reputation, that in fact can be a cause of action against that person, and you have the burden to show that. The first amendment is not absolute, and once you defame a person, that freedom can be removed and you could suffer some litigation consequences.”
That being said, Ms. Perez could lose big time. It’s a wild situation, but depending on the outcome and her financial situation, she could actually lose her home. The latest update I have is that a judge has ruled in favor of the contractor and Yelp removed the unsupported accusations that he stole jewelry from her review. They are now examining whether the contractor is eligible for compensation for lost business due to her review..
The morale of this story is that the First Amendment is still intact. It does not act as a blanket to protect anyone that slanders. In Ms. Perez’s case, even if she happened to have a ‘nanny cam’ that shows Mr. Deitz pocketing her jewelry; it is circumstantial evidence unless she can show he left the house with it.
Having been a contractor for years, I take before and after photos of everything I work on. I have moved expensive pieces of furniture, vases and jewelry from the workplace, only to replace it exactly where it was. The only thing missing might be the dust that could have been covering it.
It will be interesting to see how Yelp handles this. The company may implement stricter review guides.