Is it free speech and democracy exercised by all, or a collection of lies written by online bullies? Depends who you talk to.
One thing is for sure -- the new world of on-line social chatter, blogs and opinions are spreading like wildfire.
And not everyone likes it -- take the case of Amy’s Baking Company versus Yelp Elite reviewer Joel T.
“When my husband went out to ask how was everything, he was very rude he pushed the pizza across the table and said well I didn’t like it at all,” says Amy.
Amy Bouzaglo and her husband Sam run Amy’s Baking Company in Scottsdale.
“It got my blood boiling I’ll tell you that,” says Joel.
“He actually said to our waitress is this the last f-you in this place,” says Amy.
“I said something I shouldn't have said to the server, I readily admit that,” says Joel.
“If I didn’t care what kind of products we sent out I wouldn’t be here every day,” says Amy.
A Yelp Elite reviewer -- who goes by "Joel T" online -- stopped by for dinner one Saturday night. Then he wrote and posted a review on Yelp, a popular site for restaurant reviews.
“I didn’t enjoy the food that I had and tried to voice the concerns about it and it kind of fell on deaf ears.”
Among the comments from Joel T's review about Amy’s pizza: "I took a bite and was immediately underwhelmed" … "after two small pieces I decided I was wasting my calories and just gave up on it."
“These people are internet bullies they have nothing to do but sit behind their computer and lie and try to hurt people,” says Amy.
“It was really strange that they chose to lash out at me,” says Joel.
And lash out, Amy did. Writing in response as Amy B. on Yelp she said, "Dear Joel T. it is blatantly obvious to me why you were alone on a Saturday night” and "the pizza was fresh and amazing."
“If he has freedom of speech so do I!” Amy defends.
“I was just kind of shocked that someone would attack me personally,” says Joel.
The fusillade of internet crossfire between the two triggered a Yelp war from those supporting Amy -- and those backing Joel.
It went on for months.
But is there anything illegal about what the reviewer did online?
“If that’s all he said no they don't have a case,” says Phoenix attorney Daniel Barr, who specializes in first amendment free speech and libel issues.
“Restaurant reviews, movie reviews, reviews of plays can be upsetting to people to say that your food stinks or that your movie is terrible. Certainly hurts a lot of feelings, but its not libelous. Those aren't statements of fact.”
“However if someone were to say in a restaurant review that the restaurant used spoiled food, passing off meat that was unsafe or something like that, those are factual statements then that could be defamatory."
What is written about on Yelp -- or any social media such as Twitter or Facebook -- can get people into trouble.
“A blogger in Portland wrote about a spa doctor up there. Apparently the guy who advertised a lot, she commented about his ubiquitous advertisements and also made a statement that he had been disciplined in the past for having sex with clients,” describes Barr.
Not so fast.
“The spa doctor sued saying it was that it was untrue that he was disciplined, not for having sex with a patient, instead he had been disciplined in 2001 for inappropriate touching of patients and there was no mention of sex there.”
Lawsuits filed for on-line defamation are on the rise dramatically. So are lawsuits for harassment, privacy breaches and personal threats.
Amy says some of the replies to her postings included this death threat: “Driving their car through the front of my restaurant to run over my husband and I, that’s who we are dealing with.”
And when it comes to Yelp itself, Amy accuses the on-line review site of overstepping its bounds.
“They informed us that if we did advertise with them they could do something about those reviews,” Amy says.
Remove negative reviews -- if Amy’s Baking Company pays to advertise on Yelp?
Not so, says Yelp. In fact it was cleared of similar accusations in a San Francisco case settled just weeks ago.
Yelp, in a written statement, claims its 'automated algorithm' filters content, not its salesmen. And if restaurants think otherwise then 'nothing could be further from the truth.'
“I have had a lot of restaurant owners and speak to me directly after this happened saying we are so proud of you, we are happy you stood up and retaliated,” says Amy.
“I think that had they not responded that way it would not have blown up like it did,” says Joel. “I don’t have any ill will against them, if they want to invite me back I would go.”
Attorney Dan Barr says if you want to blog or write reviews, you should know what you are getting yourself into first here: www.eff.org/bloggers