Online reviews have become a popular tool for customers to record their experiences, good and bad, with businesses.
Customers whose burger was burnt or whose waiter was rude now have public outlets – internet sites like Yelp and Facebook – to vent their frustration.
Like this online review of a Grand Forks restaurant: “Our waiter was more interested in keeping personal conversations with the couple next to us than to make sure we had drinks at our table. Appetizer was like it was store bought. Asked for medium steak, they brought it out rare. Husband asked for a birthday celebration … nothing done.”
It’s not terrible – we’ve seen much worse – but it also is not flattering. We’ve chosen to keep the name of the restaurant quiet, since other online reviews of that place are glowing. Also, our many experiences there have been excellent, and nothing whatsoever like those portrayed in the review.
The Herald does not publish letters to the editor that criticize local businesses, unless those businesses are somehow involved in current news. That rule is in place not only for fairness, but also because we know that publishing potentially false information about a business is a dicey proposition for a newspaper.
The internet is a different place altogether. And as the number of harsh online reviews grows, some businesses are fighting back in the form of SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) lawsuits.
CBS News reported on the increase of SLAPP lawsuits against reviewers, profiling one man who accumulated $26,000 in legal bills after he wrote a harsh review about a veterinarian. The CBS report also noted a New York woman who reviewed her doctor was sued for $1 million, a man in Kansas was sued over his review of a theme park, and a woman in South Carolina was sued by a restaurant after she claimed in a review that her coupon wasn’t honored.
Numerous states – including Minnesota – have anti-SLAPP laws; North Dakota does not.
And all of this is happening despite the Consumer Review Fairness Act, a law that protects consumers’ ability to share honest opinions about a business’ products, services or conduct in any form, including social media.
But here’s the rub: It protects “honest” opinions. It doesn’t protect libelous or harassing comments or comments that are clearly false or misleading. That leaves plenty of room for debate.
SLAPP lawsuits add shakiness to freedom-of-speech ground since – as CBS reported – they often don’t pursue justice as much as they simply seek to quiet detractors.
Meanwhile, online reviewers should consider this advice: Avoid vague reviews that simply say “this restaurant is the worst in town.” Instead, offer constructive comments, such as “the staff could work harder to know the specials.”
And remember that every single business and every single bartender, plumber and chef is bound to have an off day every so often.
As companies take to the courts to silence online critics, remember that fair and helpful is a better – and apparently much cheaper – approach than comments that can be viewed as mean, vindictive and potentially libelous.