The Law Q&A | Watch that Yelp review

The Law Q&A | Watch that Yelp review

Yelp has long been yet another "social media" internet outlet. It publishes reviews of businesses made or posted by anybody who wants to say anything about a business.

Anything? Wait a minute — hold the megaphone.

In recent years, some businesses that have been getting bad reviews in Yelp have utilized a legal tool to counter such nasty utterances — lawsuits for defamation filed against the offending bloggers.

Under Illinois law, a statement (written or verbal) is "defamatory" if it harms one's reputation to the extent it lowers that person in the eyes of the community or deters others from associating with that person.

That harm is presumed if the statement imputes the commission of a crime; imputes having a loathsome communicable disease; imputes a lack of ability or integrity in performing one's employment; and/or imputes adultery or fornication.

In the context of a business, an injury to the business's reputation is also presumed if the statement imputes a lack of ability or otherwise prejudices a person in his or her profession or business.

If the statement is presumed defamatory, a number of defenses may be offered to the otherwise defamatory proclamation. Some of the more common defenses are truth, innocent construction and opinion.

Untruthful statements of fact ("that bakery has had several health code violations," when in fact it had none) can't be turned into an opinion by couching it with the preface, "In my opinion ..."

So, if I say on Yelp that so-and-so's bakery bakes cakes so unsafe and unsanitary that my cats wouldn't latrine in them, am I going to have to fork over money to the bakery because I have imputed that baker's ability to bake well?

Innocent construction is where the claimed defamatory words are capable of being read innocently when given their natural and obvious meaning in context. Of course my cats wouldn't latrine in that baker's cake. My cats don't latrine in any cakes.

Suppose I post on Yelp that my landlord sent me a notice claiming my rent was late, and I say, "That was a total lie! This kind of landlord makes me want to contribute to the local liquor store; having herpes isn't so bad as enduring this landlord!"

Guess what? An Illinois court of appeals said such Yelp posting is opinion and therefore not legal defamation. But the poor blogger had to spend money in defense of the suit.

In 2015, legislation in the U.S. Congress was proposed to better immunize Yelp bloggers from business' defamation suits. Those bills have stalled in the business-friendly winds currently blowing from Capitol Hill and the White House.

Some have suggested that a certain chief executive bears the symptoms of an illiterate narcissistic sociopath who only ran for office so as to better his business brand.

Opinion? Innocent construction? Truth?

Brett Kepley is a lawyer with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation. You can send your questions to The Law Q&A, 302 N. First St., Champaign, IL 61820. Questions may be edited for space.