Virginia Supreme Court won't force Yelp to reveal identities of anonymous commenters

Kimberly Chow | Libel | News | April 16, 2015

In a victory for Yelp and its anonymous commenters, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled today that the circuit court could not force the California-based online review site to reveal the identities of users who had posted negative reviews of a Virginia carpet-cleaning company.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, along with sixteen other media organizations, filed an amicus brief in the case, which was argued last October. The amicus brief urged the Court to recognize that anonymous speech on matters of public concern, particularly anonymous commentary on news websites, is vital to public participation and must be protected. The brief also argued that the Virginia unmasking statute should be interpreted robustly, so that a plaintiff is required to provide sufficient evidence to support its claim before it may unmask an anonymous speaker.

The Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling was much narrower, holding that while the circuit court could exercise personal jurisdiction over out-of-state, nonresident parties to Virginia actions, it could not compel those parties to produce documents located outside of Virginia. Therefore, the subpoena duces tecum issued to Yelp, demanding the identities of the commenters as part of Hadeed Carpet’s attempted defamation against them, could not be enforced. It was not sufficient that Yelp had a registered agent for service of process located in Virginia or that it had registered to conduct business in the state.

Hadeed Carpet had stated that it suspected the commenters were not actually customers of the company. Yelp argued that the reviewers’ speech was protected by the First Amendment. Since the Court based its judgment on the jurisdiction issues, it did not discuss the First Amendment implications of the subpoena.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· rcfp.org: http://www.rcfp.org/sites/default/files/2014-07-30-yelp-v-hadeed-carpet-cleaning.pdf

· Brief: Yelp v. Hadeed Carpet Cleaning

· Release: Strict standards for protecting anonymous online commenters urged by Reporters Committee