Dentist Sues Couple Over Negative Web Review

Published May 1, 2009

A pediatric dentist is suing a California couple because their son gave the dentist a negative review on—a case that is raising concerns about freedom of expression on the Internet.

San Francisco-based Yelp is an online guide that helps people find restaurants and services based on the opinions of others in the community. Late last year a boy writing under the name “T.J.” posted a negative review of Foster City, California-based dentist Yvonne Wong.

Wong sued Yelp for not taking the post down, and also sued the boy’s parents. The case was still pending at press time.

Law Grants Site Immunity

Industry experts say is protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996—the so-called “safe harbors” provision that immunizes Web sites from the potentially libelous posts of users.

“As long as does not engage in content creation, they are immune under the Act,” said Karl Kronenberger, a San Francisco-based attorney specializing in Internet law. “If Yelp has not been dismissed yet from the lawsuit, they most likely will be dismissed soon.”

Parents Remain on Hook

The poster’s parents, though, might still be legally on the hook according to California law.

“The important question here is whether or not the review was defamatory,” Kronenberger sad. “If the statements are true, the reviewer is protected by the First Amendment.

“The parents getting sued is not a unique legal issue,” Kronenberger added. “The unique issue is people posting with what they view to be impunity, in a reckless manner. Anyone can post an opinion. You cannot be held liable for your opinion. But, if you venture into the area of factual assertions, and if the facts are wrong, you can be sued.”

Site Policing Recommended

A better way to handle such disputes, Kronenberger says, is for Yelp and other review sites to monitor postings for potential libel.

“If [a site] feels something is over the line, they should delete it,” Kronenberger said.

Such practices could stave off even stricter libel laws that would threaten freedom of expression.

“I think the defamation laws are fine as they are now,” Kronenberger added. “The same laws that prohibit defamation made on a street corner prohibit defamation on the Internet. What we really need is for to step in and mediate some of these disputes so they don’t end up in court.”

Tabassum Rahmani ([email protected]) writes from Dublin, California.