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Website must identify ‘John Doe’ posters, appeals court says

A Virginia carpet cleaning business may subpoena information on anonymous posters of consumer complaints about the business on Yelp.com, a California-based social networking site.

The Court of Appeals of Virginia upheld an Alexandria Circuit Court decision to enforce the subpoena, served on Yelp’s registered agent in Virginia, requesting information on several “John Doe” posters named as defendants in a defamation suit.

On appeal, Yelp argued the First Amendment required Hadeed Carpet Cleaning to show a meritorious claim on the law and the facts before a court could enforce a subpoena to identify an anonymous speaker.

An Internet user “does not shed his free speech rights at the log-in screen,” wrote appellate Judge William G. Petty in Yelp Inc. v. Hadeed Carpet Cleaning Inc. But the freedom to speak with anonymity “is not absolute.” If the consumer reviews are defamatory, “then the John Does’ veil of anonymity may be pierced,” with certain procedural safeguards under Va. Code § 8.01-407.1.

Hadeed said it searched its own customer records and identified seven posters who could not be confirmed as customers of the company.

If an anonymous poster was not in fact a customer of the business being reviewed, the review is not a protected opinion but is based on a false statement of fact – that the review is based on personal experience, according to the appellate panel’s Jan. 7 opinion.

The panel majority said the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in enforcing the subpoena.

CORRECTION: This post has been updated to note that the panel majority upheld enforcement of the subpoena but a third panel member dissented from that holding.

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