Like countless other small business owners, Christopher Dietz, a contractor in Washington, D.C., wasn't happy to see what one of his clients posted about him online on Yelp and Angie's List.
Unlike many on the receiving end of bad publicity, Dietz responded by filing a defamation lawsuit against the reviewer, Jane Perez of Fairfax County, Virginia. In her reviews, she complained about Aietz's work, and also implied that someone from his company stole jewelry from her home.
Dietz asked a court to rule that the comments defamed him. He sought damages of $750,000 and an order directing Perez to remove her reviews.
Last month, Judge Thomas Fortkort in Fairfax Couty held a preliminary hearing about whether to order the posts removed. At the conclusion, he ruled that comments griping about Aietz's work could remain online -- at least pending a full trial about whether they were libelous. But the judge said Perez had to remove her comments about the missing jewelry.
That portion of the ruling riled civil rights advocates, who argued it was an unlawful prior restraint -- that is, a prohibition on speech before there's been a decision about whether it violates any laws. Generally, judges aren't allowed to censor speech based on mere allegations.
Perez appealed, with the help of Public Citizen's Paul Alan Levy and the ACLU. Last week, a three-judge appellate panel in Virginia agreed with Perez and lifted the injunction. The one-page order said that the original injunction was "not justified."
The issue was so clear to the appeals court that it didn't even wait to receive Dietz's legal papers before issuing a ruling, Levy reported today in a blog post. He added the decision means "members of the public will be able to review Jane Perez's criticism and Dietz's responses, and make up their own minds."
Apart from the free speech issues, Levy also questions whether Dietz's lawsuit is a smart business move. "Litigation of this sort can hurt the business," Levy says in an earlier blog post about the case. "What homeowner is going to want to hire a contractor who sues a customer over an unfavorable review on Yelp or Angie’s List?"
That's not the only way this kind of lawsuit can backfire. Already, Perez's posts about Dietz have received far more attention than most online gripes, suggesting, once again, that the surest way to spread comments online is to try to censor them.