Gavel

Remember the tidbit last month about the woman who got slapped with a $750,000 lawsuit for writing a scathing review of her contractor on Yelp and Angie’s List? Jane Perez didn’t just recount her frustrations, she also levied accusations involving missing jewelry and urged people not to hire the company. Ultimately, the judge sided with the plaintiff, granting a temporary injunction that ordered her to edit the post.

A mandate like this could have lasting repercussions on the very nature of the web. If user review sites are the first stop, what’s next? Message boards and comment sections like the one below? And what about editorial content? Would Apple or Samsung be empowered to sue whenever they see unfavorable articles or reviews and have them pulled? Well, why not? They’re certainly no strangers to lawsuits. (Of course, that scenario would wipe out half the tech blogs out there.)

The suit could’ve opened a can of worms regarding free speech on the Internet. It could have, but it didn’t. On December 26, Public Citizen and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a 21-page petition calling the decision censorship. It was followed by a swift decision by the Virginia Supreme Court, which took just two days to come back and reverse the injunction.

Not that others won’t open that can, as more companies take to the courts alleging defamation. Indeed, reviews have the power to ruin reputations and break businesses. On the Web, where word spreads like wildfire, and everyone has the access and ability to post whatever they want, the stakes are even higher. Defamation is tough to prove, but there’s no shortage of plaintiffs trying.

As for this case, the only precedent it seems to have set so far is that judges can’t revise or censor online speech, at least not while a lawsuit is ongoing. But this case isn’t closed yet. A jury trial is still pending for damages, so we’ll have to see how the rest of this drama plays out. Hopefully, it won’t somehow trigger a civil rights crisis.

What do you think? Should the court order have been upheld and Perez mandated to redact her review? Or, did Virginia’s Supreme Court do the right thing and nix the decision? And if you knew there was a risk of getting sued, would that change if or how you post online? Weigh in.