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By: Matt Foree
As discussed in this blog previously, defamation attorneys and free speech advocates are anxiously awaiting the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision in the Yelp, Inc. v. Hadeed Carpet Cleaning matter as to whether Yelp is required to turn over identifying information regarding its anonymous reviewers. That court heard oral argument in October such that a decision should be forthcoming early this year.
In the meantime, a defamation case filed in Oregon by a hotel based on a negative TripAdvisor online review has been dismissed based on that state’s media shield law. In the Oregon case, an anonymous user (“12Kelly”) posted negative comments on TripAdvisor about a hotel, the Ashley Inn and Suites. The review included comments such as “laundry and housekeeping are either high or drunk,” “breakfast is nasty, the rooms are nasty,” and “the owner smokes weed.” The Inn filed a defamation lawsuit and sought to obtain the identity of the reviewer. The court held that Oregon’s shield law protected TripAdvisor from having to reveal the identity of the anonymous poster. Without a defendant to sue, the case was dismissed.
Oregon’s media shield law, enacted in 1973, prevents the disclosure of certain information, by subpoena or otherwise, by any person “employed by or engaged in any medium of communication to the public.” Among other things, the law prevents the disclosure of the “source of any published or unpublished information obtained by the person in the course of gathering, receiving or processing information for any medium of communication to the public.” As such, the law was clearly intended to apply to reporters in media such as newspapers and magazines. Accordingly, the Oregon court’s interpretation of this statute seems overly broad.
It remains to be seen whether other state courts will follow suit by relying on shield laws to prevent disclosure of anonymous users in such cases, but in the meantime, the result is unsatisfying for business owners seeking to protect their reputations against anonymous reviewers.