When Online Reviews Go from Free Speech to Slander

In our new podcast, we spoke with construction contractor Christopher Dietz of Dietz Development who is currently in a legal battle over slanderous online reviews posted by a former client. In July 2011, Jane Perez, Dietz’s former classmate, hired him to perform work on her newly purchased home in Virginia. Disagreements arose over the remodeling, which led to unpaid invoices, and finally, a lawsuit. Dietz was unable to file paperwork regarding the lawsuit on time, and the courts dropped his case.

Here is where the story takes an all-too-familiar turn. In early 201

Chris Dietz

Chris Dietz of Dietz Development (Photo: YouTube)

2, Perez posted reviews of Dietz’s work on both Angie’s List and Yelp. In her comments, she insisted that Dietz had done significant damage to her home, stolen her jewelry, and taken her to court for money that she did not owe him (the full Yelp review can be seen here.) Dietz requested that the sites take the reviews down, as they were defamatory, untrue reflections of his business. Neither relented. Yelp explained to Dietz that only the poster could remove a comment. They said that if he were to advertise with them, they would display positive reviews at the top of his page, and hide Perez’s review at the bottom. (Unfortunately, this is not the first time small business owners have accused Yelp of extortion.) Shocked, Dietz refused. “I was raised with morals,” he told us.

It’s important to note that on the Dietz Development Yelp page, eight reviews are filtered, including positive, five-star reviews, and one-star reviews from California users for whom Dietz claims he has never done work. The only review that displays on the main Dietz Development Yelp page is the one written by Perez.

After trying to work with the websites in removing Perez’s statements, he filed a complaint in a Virginia circuit court last October, seeking $750,000 in damages to his lost reputation, and asked for a preliminary injunction to remove her disparaging reviews. The court ruled in Dietz’s favor, specifically requesting that Perez remove any reviews that refer to the loss of jewelry or the Summary Judgment of the previous case.

This was the first time in the United States that limitations were placed upon what a person could say online. While this is a violation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (which came up in our last podcast blog post), Virginia law states that a person can be found guilty of defamation charges if he or she makes or implies statements that harm a person or businesses’ reputation. Dietz didn’t want to hinder free speech, but that is how his actions are being perceived.

In December of the same year, Perez filed a petition for review with the Supreme Court of Virginia, and they ordered a reversal of the previous injunction, permitting her to repost her previous reviews.  Dietz’s lawsuit against Perez is scheduled to take place in late January 2014, and we hope to reconvene with him at that point to hear the outcome.

Below is a screenshot of the review that started everything.

dietz review

 

 

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