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Massachusetts Jewelry Store Doesn’t Have Right to Demand Identity of Yelp Critic, Public Citizen to Tell Court

Case Could Set Important Standard for First Amendment Rights on the Internet for Massachusetts

WASHINGTON - A jewelry store that got an unfavorable review on Yelp should not be able to use the courts to find out the identity of its critic without making a showing that its claim is meritorious, Public Citizen will tell a Boston Municipal Court on Tuesday.

George Pelz, owner of Pageo – a Massachusetts jewelry store – posted a response on Yelp denying the contentions of commenter “Linda G.” after she posted a negative review describing her experience as a customer of Pageo and her interaction with Pelz. Pelz and his company then sued Linda G., alleging that her review is false and defamatory, and they subpoenaed Yelp’s registered agent in Boston, seeking to identify Linda G.

Representing Yelp, Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy will argue that Pelz has not come close to meeting the well-accepted First Amendment test for identifying anonymous speakers. In particular, Pelz has produced no evidence, despite Yelp’s repeated requests, that any of the statements made about the store by Linda G. are defamatory or that they have caused damage to Pageo’s reputation.

Although many courts throughout the country have adopted standards that spell out when anonymous Internet critics can be identified and when they can’t, Massachusetts courts have not. If no legal standard exists, or if a lax standard exists, businesses and their lawyers could use litigation to intimidate dissatisfied consumers into silence.

“This case could be the first to set an important standard for First Amendment rights of online reviewers in Massachusetts,” said Levy. “We hope the court will recognize that consumers should have the right to share their negative experiences with potential other customers online and companies should not be able to use the courts to bully them into silence.”

In addition, Levy will argue that the subpoena was issued in the wrong state, because Massachusetts courts don’t have the power to compel an out-of-state corporation that is not a party to a lawsuit to produce documents.

Local counsel are Boston lawyers Christopher Donnelly and Kelly Hoffman of Donnelly, Conroy & Gelhaar, LLP.

Learn more about the case.


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