Bill Would Stop Businesses from Prohibiting Negative Online Reviews

By Brenda Flanagan

“If I’m going to pay you and the services I receive are not up to standard, then I have a right to gripe,” said Natasha Moody.

Savvy consumers check online reviews — and most don’t mince words. “If I could give ZERO stars I would!!” “Avoid this place like the plague.” “STAY AWAY!!!!!!!! DON’T MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE WE DID. Run far away from this scam of a company.”

“And if you don’t have a good review, then I’m going to usually pass and look at the next listing to see how many stars they have,” Moody said.

“If I put a bad review on Yelp, you better believe the company’s actually calling me that day to make sure I’m OK,” said Courtney Roselle.

But some companies call reviewers and actually threaten to sue. That happened to Christina Lipsky of Hamilton last year after she posted this on Yelp about a Mercer County dental practice: “I’m extremely frustrated with this dentist!…The course of action they recommended was extreme and frankly unnecessary.”

Lipsky notes, “I don’t by any means advocate the online mob mentality, but people should be able to share their experiences with one another without the threat of a lawsuit.” The dentist eventually backed off, but Yelp’s government relations director notes, it’s not an uncommon problem.

“Some businesses have decided to try to game the system in order to boost their reputation by either threatening lawsuits against individuals for leaving honest but negative reviews or commentary,” said Laurent Crenshaw.

Yelp now prominently tags businesses with itchy legal trigger fingers to warn consumers.

“That they should be aware that this business has that kind of a clause or has engaged in that behavior in the past,” Crenshaw said.

But online reviewers might unwittingly sign away their right to gripe. So-called “anti-disparagement” clauses can lurk deep in the fine print of service providers like this wedding vendor: “By signing this contract, you are agreeing that you will not make or encourage any disparaging comments about [so and so] ever in any form verbal or written.”

“I think that this is completely unfair and the American people have a right to comment based upon what has occurred,” said Congressman Leonard Lance.

Lance says an engaged staffer found a clause like this in his wedding music contract. Lance co-sponsored a bipartisan bill that would ban business contracts for goods or services that don’t allow negative or truthful reviews and give the Federal Trade Commission enforcement over the issue, without affecting a company’s right to sue for libel or slander.

“It just means that you can’t prohibit somebody from an honest assessment. In other words, there can’t be any ‘gag’ clause in these types of matters,” Lance said.

Lance’s bill passed the House unanimously and there’s a companion measure in the Senate. Both aim to let consumers freely sound off online.