Targets of online criticism strike back in court


WASHINGTON — Angered by what she thought was shoddy work on her home, Fairfax, Va. resident Jane Perez did what has become the go-to form of retail vengeance in the Internet age: She logged onto Yelp and posted scathing reviews of the Washington firm that did the job.

Perez ticked off a list of accusations, including damage to her home, an invoice for work the contractor did not perform and jewelry that disappeared. She closed one post by fuming, “Bottom line do not put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor.”

The contractor’s response to her one-star takedown? Fight back.

Christopher Dietz filed a $750,000 Internet defamation against Perez last month, saying the postings on Yelp and others on Angie’s List were false and sent customers fleeing. He asked a Fairfax County court for a preliminary injunction to keep her from writing similar reviews.

A judge ruled Wednesday that Perez must delete certain accusations and is barred from implying in posts that Dietz stole jewelry from her home and that she had won on the merits a previous lawsuit Dietz brought against her for unpaid bills.

Lawyers say it is one of 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.

Mark Goldowitz, founder of the Public Participation Project, which monitors such lawsuits, said he sees a troubling trend in review site defamation cases such as the one in Fairfax. He thinks they are a threat to vibrant new communities that have sprung up around Yelp and other sites.

His group is pushing for a federal law that allows defendants to seek early dismissal of lawsuits that are aimed at silencing voices on public issues.


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