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Can You 'Gag' a Customer's Online Reviews?

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on December 01, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Small businesses and online review sites like Yelp have a tenuous relationship. On one hand, websites like Yelp offer customers a way to sound off about a business's services and goods. It can be a great publicity outlet.

On the other hand, a particularly negative review can quickly turn profits into losses.

That's why some doctors and dentists began using contracts provided Medical Justice. These privacy agreements had a clause called the Code of Internet Ethics that stated patients couldn't post "personal attacks" about the office's well-being and reputation, only constructive criticism.

Robert Lee, a patient who went to see a New York dentist, felt the brunt of this agreement when he was threatened with legal action in October if he didn't take down a bad Yelp review.

Lee chose to contact a lawyer instead, and a lawsuit was filed in New York that claimed these kinds of "gag" orders breached a health provider's fiduciary duties. The lawsuit also wishes to have the court declare that Lee's review didn't amount to defamation.

Now, Ars Technica reports that Medical Justice has responded to the suit with a decision to stop using the Code of Internet Ethics clause in their agreements.

This may lead some business owners to question whether or not they should even spend time battling negative reviews. Defamation suits can be costly. And, if what the customer writes is true, it's not considered defamation.

It would also be difficult to convince a court that an gag agreement like the Code of Internet Ethics is valid even if you manage to get customers to sign them. Contracts need to be supported by some sort of consideration on both sides. And there's the whole problem of image - businesses will likely only get bad word of mouth if they try to muzzle customers from expressing their opinions.

The best bet to eliminate bad online reviews for businesses on Yelp seems to be to take a preventative stance: do your best to offer good and respectable customer service.

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