AUSTIN, TEXAS (KXAN) – Joe Browning was in the business of buying and selling cars. In 2013, when he had difficulty getting the title to a vehicle he purchased in Louisiana, Browning hired a local law firm to help. He had no idea at the time that the law firm would ultimately sue him over an online review he posted about the company.
“It was a pretty straightforward case as far as we were concerned, and so we hired Grissom and Thompson to represent us,” said Browning.
After some time working on his case, Browning says he was less than satisfied with the firm.
“They just really dropped the ball,” Browning added. “You guys have lost paperwork. You’ve missed filings. You’ve missed deadlines. You have cost us so much money. We’re done paying you.”
Browning says he felt responsible to warn other people about his poor experience with the law firm. Browning’s case highlights the thin line between free speech and defamation, and his case is not the only one like it.
“I want to make sure that other people who are thinking about using that law firm specifically think really carefully about the commitment that they’re making and as much as I can prevent anybody from using them I’m going to,” said Browning.
In November 2013, he gave the law firm a one-star review on Yelp.com and posted this review. Browning’s review was the first review for the company and as of Feb. 13, 2018, the only review for the company on Yelp.
“I tried to be really factual. I tried to outline, you know, this is why… these are the facts and then I was really clear to say well this is also my opinion. I don’t feel that I was malicious in the way that I did it. I feel like it was fair. I feel like it was an accurate reflection of what transpired.”
However, the law firm disagreed. They sued Browning first for non-payment, then again for defamation for $100,000.
“The statements he made were untrue,” explained Kirkland Fulk, the attorney representing Don Grissom and Bill Thompson. “It did damage their business reputation, and you can’t ever get that back.”
Browning says he told the law firm to stop working on his case but they continued working and charging him. The law firm denies that and says they stopped working because Browning wasn’t paying his bill.
Fulk says businesses must protect themselves and their reputations online.
“You put it out there one time on social media and it just takes off,” he said. “The only thing you really own is your word and your reputation, and when that’s gone, it’s gone.”
A judge sided in favor of the law firm. Representatives of the firm said the suit could have been avoided altogether.
“Even before filing the defamation lawsuit, I contacted Mr. Browning and told him, ‘Look you’ve got to take this down and if you don’t, this is what’s going to happen.’ I got zero response,” said Fulk.
Even now, Browning refuses to remove the Yelp post. He says we either have the right to free speech or we don’t.
“People say I have the First Amendment right. You really don’t. If you have to spend your family’s money to defend yourself, you really don’t have the right to free speech,” Browning said. “If you don’t have your words, if you don’t have your integrity, if you don’t have your right to say what you feel, then there’s something really wrong with the structural dynamics of this country if you can’t speak your mind.”
Fulk responded, “There are limits to speech, and I think that’s important for people to know. Once you take that next step over and get into the falsity that is damaging to a business, that’s where the problems come in. You don’t have the right to hurt someone else. You don’t have the right to impugn someone else’s character.”
Because the review remains online, the legal matter is still playing out in court. Fulk says the law firm has yet to collect its judgment.
Negative reviews have become the subject of dozens of lawsuits across Texas in recent years.
In 2016, a local pool builder sued a Williamson County woman for slander and cyberbullying for a negative review she posted on multiple consumer sites. She claimed the company was “completely incompetent” and wrote that if she could give a “minus 10 stars,” she would.
In 2014, a doctor’s office in Travis County claimed a patient made false accusations of professional misconduct on a Google Plus review. The plaintiff argued the “defendant’s review was factually false, defamatory and, in fact, simply fabricated.” The suit states the review was initially posted under one Google account name, but the name was changed.
In 2012, a Houston man posted online about a gold-buying business, calling it a “total rip-off.” That business then pursued legal action, saying it was the clear the man who posted the review had never been to their store.
Filmmaker Kaylie Milliken has produced a documentary about Yelp, specifically, and says its customer review system is far from perfect, making legal battles like these especially challenging.
“It’s very difficult to know if reviews are legitimate or not,” said Milliken, director and producer of Billion Dollar Bully. “They can be getting reviews from people who are competitors. It can be a number of people putting up these fake reviews.”
Although a judge sided in favor of the law firm in Browning’s case, legal experts told KXAN News it’s actually difficult to win defamation lawsuits. A Yelp spokesperson’s response to KXAN echoed the same thing.
“Given the difficulty of prevailing in a defamation suit, and that many states including Texas have strong anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statutes designed to remove the incentive to file a suit that is likely to fail in order to intimidate and chill critical speech, we find that frequently a better course of action than suing your customers is publicly responding to a critical review in the same forum,” wrote the Yelp spokesperson. The review site said they do not take sides in disputes between reviewers and businesses.
Then-Gov. Rick Perry signed the Texas Citizens Participation Act into law on June 17, 2011. The purpose of the law is to give more protection to Texans who have been retaliated against for publishing their opinions. According to HaynesBoone.com – which was instrumental in getting the anti-SLAPP statute enacted – “the law protects citizens (whether they are individuals, businesses, media organizations, political candidates) who exercise their First Amendment rights from meritless claims aimed at silencing them, subjecting them to paying expensive attorneys’ fees and defending against exhaustive legal proceedings.”
KXAN reached out to several consumer websites – including Facebook, Nextdoor, and Glassdoor, among others – to find out if and how they monitor customer reviews. Each company referred us to their online guidelines. Although each site has its own good practices and guidelines for posting customers, the sites cannot police all content posted to their sites. In large part, it’s up to customers reviewing a business to make sure their comments are legal. If not, they could be sued.
Yelp has Terms of Service and Content Guidelines in place and anyone can flag a review if they feel it is in violation of these guidelines. Flagged reviews will be looked at by our user support team. If they are deemed in clear violation of the guidelines, they will be removed.
Statement of Rules and Responsibilities for everyone who uses Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/legal/terms
Nextdoor Member Agreement: https://nextdoor.com/member_agreement/
Glassdoor Community Guidelines: http://help.glassdoor.com/article/Community-Guidelines/en_US
Employee reviews on Glassdoor are kept anonymous. Representatives of the company said Glassdoor has not seen a trend of employers suing those who leave reviews on the site about their workplace experiences.
Experts say if you’re concerned a review you’re thinking about posting could get you in legal trouble, think twice before publishing. However, it’s advised that so long as you stick with the truth, in most cases, you should be alright.
You expose yourself to legal liability if:
- What you post is intentionally misleading,
- If it violates copyright and/or privacy rights,
- And if it’s defamatory.
Also be sure that what you’re posting is appropriate. Most guidelines suggest there’s no need for threats, harassment, hate speech, or bigotry.