Legal Cases

There have been many legal cases involving social media, which have focused on a broad range of topics, from employer-employee issues, to intellectual property violations, to bullying.  Here are just a few articles of interest on this topic:

But, I wanted to focus on material we didn’t cover extensively during the course, so I narrowed the scope to freedom of expression via social media.  For this, I will focus on legal cases surrounding the food industry and social media – because, there is a wealth of material!  A Chipotle employee won a lawsuit after being fired for a disgruntled tweet.  Triple Play Sports Bar and Grille in Watertown, Conn. was found in violation of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) when it fired an employee for complaining on facebook that the owners did not know how to “do tax paperwork correctly.”

Beyond employee-related issues, restaurant reviews are becoming an increasingly heated area for lawsuits, as businesses suffer financial consequences from hits to their online reputation.  Typically, what happens is that a customer will leave a negative review for a restaurant and then the restaurant will sue the customer (this is not limited to restaurants, but I narrowed my focus for the sake of brevity).

These types of suits have a name.  They’re referred to as “a strategic lawsuit against public participation” or a “SLAPP” suit.  These are lawsuits “intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.  The typical SLAPP plaintiff does not normally expect to win the lawsuit. The plaintiff’s goals are accomplished if the defendant succumbs to fear, intimidation, mounting legal costs or simple exhaustion and abandons the criticism. A SLAPP may also intimidate others from participating in the debate. A SLAPP is often preceded by a legal threat. The difficulty, of course, is that plaintiffs do not present themselves to the Court admitting that their intent is to censor, intimidate or silence their critics. Hence, the difficulty in drafting SLAPP legislation, and in applying it, is to craft an approach which affords an early termination to invalid abusive suits, without denying a legitimate day in court to valid good faith claims.”

One restaurant has attempted to proactively thwart potential negative reviews by inserting a libel clause in its reservation policy, which must be signed by any guest making a reservation.  In the policy, the restaurant suggests it may sue any customer who complains about the policy, or for “generating any potential negative, verbal or written defamation.”

Not surprisingly, the great state of California passed a law to regulate these suits, thereby protecting every customer’s right to take to social media with their opinions, however vitriolic they may be.  Then the CA state delegation attempted to pass a similar law on the federal level, but the bill never went anywhere.

Yelp users got a wake up call a couple of years ago though, when a Cambridge, MA chef called out two female customers on Instagram for what he deemed rude behavior: “shout out to these two winners for seating themselves with no reservations, insulting and berating our staff, refusing to leave and all the while yelping away in front of us as a means of threat,” he wrote, along with a few hashtags, including #wedontnegotiatewithyelpers.

But, the lawsuits around the BSM and the restaurant industry are not limited to food.  One restaurant sued three women earlier this summer for what it claims were false statements, in which the posters claimed they were asked to leave for breastfeeding in the restaurant.

All of this points to the important role that online opinion forums and posts play in modern day in-person transactions, particularly with regard to the hospitality industry, where the “goods” provided are rated very subjectively by the consumer.  Here are numerous other examples of business owners fighting back against Yelp reviews through litigation.

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