Virginia Supreme Court reverses injunction against online commenter

Jack Komperda | Prior Restraints | News | January 4, 2013

A Virginia woman being sued by her home contractor for libel won't have to remove negative comments she posted on Internet review sites about him, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled.

The state’s high court reversed a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge’s ruling ordering Jane Perez to delete portions of her review of the contractor on Yelp and Angie’s List. In her review, Perez mentioned that her jewelry was missing. She also referenced the outcome of a suit brought by the contractor against Perez for nonpayment.

The Circuit Court also barred Perez from making similar claims on other online comment sites.

In a one-page ruling issued on Dec. 28, a three-judge panel of the state Supreme Court vacated the Circuit Court’s Dec. 7 order, saying the injunction was not justified and the lower court did not specify how long it would be effective.

Both the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer rights advocacy group, appealed the Circuit Court judge’s decision on Perez’s behalf, arguing in a written filing that the injunction violated both the First Amendment and Virginia state law.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling is a great reminder of the importance of free speech in our society,” ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg said of the state high court’s decision in a written statement posted on the organization’s website. "Dietz will still have the opportunity to try to prove in court that he was wronged by Perez’s speech, but the court cannot suppress her speech in the meantime.”

Dietz is seeking $750,000 in damages in his defamation suit against Perez over the comments. Dietz claims the online reviews cost him $300,000 in business, and had also unsuccessfully asked the judge to keep Perez from making any further critical comments about his business during the course of the lawsuit.

Neither Yelp nor Angie's List were involved in the suit between Perez and Dietz, but Yelp has indicated its support for federal legislation aimed at curbing the growth of "strategic lawsuits against public participation," or SLAPP suits.