Yelp was one of several big-name companies to align itself with the more than 1,200 businesses and cities that had already joined the Open to All coalition on Tuesday — Airbnb, Lyft and Levi Strauss also signed up.
This kind of campaign would once have been seen as unnecessary, Open to All spokeswoman Calla Rongerude said on a phone call with reporters Tuesday. But times have changed.
“In 2018, it’s shocking that many people of color, LGBTQ people, people of minority faith and others still can’t be sure they won’t be discriminated against when they seek goods or services from businesses in their local communities,” Rongerude said. “No one should have to worry about whether they will be denied service.”
Open to All launched in late 2017 to call attention to a case then about to come before the U.S. Supreme Court: the Colorado baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. About six months later, the court sent the case back to the lower courts, declining to rule at that time on whether a business owner can cite his or her religious beliefs to refuse to offer services to gay people.
Since then, cases of businesses refusing to serve certain people continue to make headlines. There was the florist in Washington state who would not provide flowers for a wedding between two men in Indiana, the Florida gun-store owner who declared his business “Muslim Free” and, more recently, the owner of the Virginia restaurant who asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave the premises because of her political alliances.
Proponents of Open to All say the movement will shine a national spotlight on an important issue at a perilous moment for LGBTQ Americans, in particular. Over the past several months, the coalition has waged a grass-roots campaign, urging businesses to sign its online nondiscrimination pledge by targeting their customers. The Open to All website tells visitors to persuade their favorite companies to sign up by visiting the businesses in person, sending them a letter or tagging them on social media with the hashtag “#OpenToAll.” The Yelp feature is the latest phase in the crusade.
Jennie Doran, the owner of Room Service, a boutique that sells home goods in Cleveland, said Open to All offers the perfect way to broadcast her beliefs to customers. “It’s something that we are very passionate about,” she said. “This is something that I feel it is necessary for me to be a part of, if we can leverage that exposure to express to the world that discrimination is not acceptable and my business will not partake of it.”
Room Service signed the Open to All pledge a few months ago. It boasts a circular, bright blue “Open to All” sticker, given to those who sign the pledge, in its street-front window. And, as of Tuesday, Room Service is designated the same on Yelp.
To acquire the label online, business owners with Yelp profiles log in and edit their accounts, Yelp’s senior vice president for public policy, Luther Lowe, said. Owners can either opt into the label, opt out or leave that space blank, Lowe said. When customers search Yelp, the Open to All designation will appear on a business’s home page under the “More business info” section.
“We’re so excited to be part of today’s announcement [and] to defend the bedrock principle that when businesses open their doors to the public, they should be open to all,” Lowe said.
Federal law prohibits discrimination in public places on the basis of gender, race, religion, sex or national origin but does not forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation. To date, 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation outlawing the latter form of discrimination.
Some businesses are reluctant to jump on board the Open for All campaign because they are concerned it may be viewed by customers as too political.
Bradley Graham, who with his wife owns the D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose, said he and his staff felt compelled to reaffirm his store’s legally mandated commitment to nondiscrimination shortly after the 2016 election. There was no one “triggering event,” but after discussions, employees decided a public statement was the best way to serve their customers. So, about a year and a half ago, staff hung a giant poster reading “All Are Welcome” in the bookstore’s front window, where it remains.
Because of that, Graham said, he has no plans to display an “Open to All” decal, and he’s still pondering the idea of selecting the option on Yelp. Graham warned that joining Open to All could amount to taking a political stance and alienating certain customers.
“By signing up to something like this . . . it risks putting off people who might regard the action as political. That’s, unfortunately, the situation we’re in right now,” he said. “Many moves that in the past might just have been seen as pretty benign are interpreted as political acts.”
Eric Goldman, a professor at the University of Santa Clara in California who studies Internet law, said Yelp is probably not legally required to verify that stores labeling themselves “Open to All” actually enforce nondiscriminatory policies. So long as Yelp does not misrepresent the fact that the designation is self-reported, the company should be in the clear.
Goldman, who has closely tracked Yelp for years, said the new feature is an intriguing but not unexpected move for the company. He said one problem Yelp has long faced is that users like to wage virtual wars in the review section over whether a business discriminates.
“With things like the Colorado baker case, customers would pound businesses on the basis of their inclusionary or exclusionary policies,” he said. “This is a way for Yelp to alleviate some of that pressure . . . by actually allowing the businesses themselves to signal it.”
Mark Furstenberg, the owner of D.C. bakery Bread Furst, said he is uninterested in joining Open to All because his bakery is already “open to all and happy to see all.”
But, like some business owners, he’s annoyed by what he views as indiscriminate customer complaints on Yelp. “I might put the little sign on the door if I thought it looked okay, if I cut off the bottom that says Yelp,” Furstenberg said.