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US court ungags Yelp reviewer who dissed builder

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Negative reviews are okay, a Virginia court has ruled in a case hailed as a triumph for free speech.

Justices Lemons, Goodwyn and Powell of the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled (PDF) that a woman's negative review of a building contractor on Yelp should not be taken down until a court has ruled that it is libellous.

A 7 December judgment had ruled that Jane Perez should rewrite her review of builders Dietz Development, effectively censoring it before a court had been able to decide whether the allegations in it were true or false. Truth is the first element of libel under US law. The ruling placed a preliminary injunction on Perez, also preventing her from making certain types of comments on other websites.

Building contractor Dietz Development sued Jane Perez in Virginia for $750,000 after she wrote a negative Yelp and Angie's List review of the business. Dietz claimed that the allegations in the review had harmed its business.

Rights group Citizen.org took up Perez's case, arguing that the injunction was a violation of her First Amendment rights, and successfully overturned the injunction last week. The case continues as the court begins to assess whether her comments were libellous.

Yelp has given this statement:

Consumer freedom of speech provides an important public service, protected by law. Courts have consistently ruled that consumers have the right to share their truthful experiences. As a result, businesses that choose to sue their customers to silence them rather than address their comments, rarely prevail and often bring additional unwanted attention to the original criticism.

The UK has been struggling with similar issues online as MPs debate a change to libel law which could require site owners to take defamatory material down upon request - regardless of whether or not the publisher has a valid legal defence (such as truth) - or be forced to run the gauntlet of the High Court. ®

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