On April 16, 2015, in a closely watched free-speech case, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Yelp did not have to disclose the identities of online users accused by the owner of a Springfield, Va. carpet cleaning company of posting fraudulent negative reviews. The Court did not decide the important First Amendment question at issue -- whether online reviewers have a right to post critical comments anonymously. Instead, it decided the issue on jurisdictional grounds, holding that Virginia courts were not authorized "to compel nonresident non-parties to produce documents located outside of Virginia." Yelp is based in California.
The business owner claimed that in 2012 his business was swamped with negative Yelp reviews that caused his sales to plunge. The owner brought defamation claims against seven reviewers, who the owner believed were not real customers and may have been competitors, and obtained a subpoena for information about their identities. Yelp was held in contempt for refusing to comply with the subpoena. The Virginia Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's ruling, stating that reviewers' free-speech rights "must be balanced against [the business owner's] right to protect its reputation." Yelp took its case to the Virginia Supreme Court.
The case attracted significant attention because of its possible free-speech implications. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other technology companies filed an amicus brief supporting Yelp, stating that "[t]he right to speak anonymously would be greatly diminished if those who objected to anonymous speech could readily employ civil discovery to unmask a speaker." The brief criticized the lower court ruling for "fail[ing] to give adequate respect to the First Amendment right to anonymous speech." The business owner's attorneys countered that the free-speech concerns were overblown because "[t]hese businesses are not looking to go out and sue people for no reason."