Anonymous online reviews face legal test

WASHINGTON – A local court case is raising a broad debate about anonymous online comments and whether they are truly free speech.

The Virginia Court of Appeals ruled this week that Yelp, a popular website and app, must release the identities of seven users who anonymously posted negative comments about Hadeed Carpet Cleaning.

The owner of the Virginia-based carpet company claims the reviews are phony. Joe Hadeed says the people behind the reviews were never customers in the first place and, therefore, were lying.

A lawsuit he filed last year prompted this current court battle.

“If somebody is just giving their opinion or is telling the truth, they ought to be able to do that without being sued,” says attorney Paul Levy, who represents Yelp.

Levy claims there was never any real proof that the anonymous online users had not been customers of the business with legitimate concerns.

The court sided with Hadeed.

“There was evidence that statements were made. What there wasn’t was evidence that the statements were false,” Levy says.

Levy says he will try to bring the case to the Virginia Supreme Court.

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