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Posted at 12:26 PM ET, 12/20/2012

ACLU, Public Citizen to fight lawsuit over negative Yelp review

Public Citizen and the ACLU are now representing a Virginia woman sued for defamation over a negative Yelp review, saying a preliminary injunction issued against her amounts to censorship.

A D.C. home contractor filed the $750,000 lawsuit in November, claiming Fairfax resident Jane Perez’s posts on Yelp and Angie’s List were false and cost him $300,000 in business. Perez has stood by the posts.

Christopher Dietz, the contractor, also sought a preliminary injunction to keep Perez from repeating the claims in new reviews. Perez accused Dietz of billing her for work he didn’t perform, trespassing on her property and implied he took jewelry from her home among other things.

A Fairfax County judge granted a limited preliminary injunction earlier this month, ordering Perez to delete some accusations in the reviews. However, he allowed the bulk of the posts to stand until the defamation claims can be resolved at trial. No trial date has been set yet.

Specifically, the judge said Perez could not repeat the claims about the jewelry and that she won a previous lawsuit Dietz filed against her over unpaid bills.

Dietz has not been charged with stealing the jewelry and a judge dismissed the lawsuit over unpaid bills before the merits of the case were weighed.

“Without resolving the specifics of what Jane Perez said about Christopher Dietz, it’s too easy for plaintiffs to go into court and ask for an injunction to shut up public discussion,” said Paul Alan Levy, an attorney for Public Citizen. “Any court order about the contents of the speech ought to await the jury’s verdict.”

The ACLU and Public Citizen are seeking to have the preliminary injunction overturned and their attorneys will serve as her counsel for the appeal.

Attorneys say legal action over reviews on sites like Yelp, Angie’s List and TripAdvisor are on the rise, as the sites become more popular and critical in forming business’ reputations.

Some free speech advocates feel such lawsuits are heavy-handed attempts to muzzle reviewers, while businesses say they are often forced to take drastic action because false reviews can have such a big impact on business.

Milt Johns, Dietz’s attorney, said he is confident his client will prevail.

“We think the law and facts are clearly on Mr. Dietz’s side, ” Johns said. He called it “ironic” that “by fighting to leave the posts up to the final trial, it could end up doing more damage to Mr. Dietz. And that could mean significantly more damages Ms. Perez has to pay.”

This item has been updated to add the quote from Milt Johns.

By  |  12:26 PM ET, 12/20/2012

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