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Online consumer reviews are some of the best ways to get an accurate, reliable glimpses at local businesses and the quality of the products and services they offer.
But when one Kansas City woman left a middle-of-the-road review of a local orthodontics clinic on online consumer review website Yelp, she ended up receiving threatening letters.
According to RTV 6, Shellie W., whose last name was omitted, went to several local orthodontics clinics for consultations and price estimates on the cost of braces for her daughter. Following one of these visits, she wrote a three-star review of Burleson Orthodontics in Briarcliff.
“Three stars according to Yelp is A-OK. So that’s pretty much it,” Shellie wrote in her review.
Soon after the review was posted, however, she experienced backlash and threats that made her afraid to even show her face to the press.
Initially, all she received was a letter from Dr. Dustin Burleson, the orthodontist in question, that thanked her for the review and said the office would use it to improve their services in the future.
A month later, Shellie received a letter from the clinic’s office manager that demanded she pull the review from Yelp. According to RTV 6, this letter stated that Shellie’s right to free speech wasn’t covered in this case because her review counted as “commercial speech.”
Then came a letter from the orthodontist’s attorney claiming thousands of dollars in damages. Shellie’s Yelp inbox flooded with messages from the orthodontist’s other patients asking her to change or remove the review. At one point, a fellow patient even confronted her in a grocery store about the review.
Even more troubling is that there are numerous others just like Shellie throughout the Kansas City area who have been threatened with a “SLAPP,” or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, for their online reviews of local businesses.
Ultimately, these consumers’ rights to free speech are protected under the First Amendment, but the threat of legal action is often enough to make many people take their reviews, which can harm a business’ online image, off the web. Kansas is one of the states without strong anti-SLAPP laws, but Yelp is hoping to change this, according to RTV 6.
“If you are sharing your accurate and honest opinion online, then that shouldn’t be stifled,” Luther Lowe, Yelp’s Director of Public Policy, said.
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