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Could a negative Yelp review lead to a lawsuit?

Scott Eells/Bloomberg

For most foodies, sharing a snapshot on Instagram and writing a Yelp review is a must. But a Charleston, S.C., steakhouse warns patrons to think twice before turning to the Web.

Post something nasty, and you could be sued.

A “dining contract” sent to guests making a reservation for five or more people includes a clause stating they “may be held legally liable for generating any potential negative, verbal or written defamation against Grill 225,” The Post and Courier reported Tuesday.

So, should serial Yelpers beware? Not so fast.

This is “watered-down legalese that means nothing,” said Andy Sellars, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, calling it a free speech issue. Defamation — which comprises a false statement of fact, made knowingly, that can be proven to cause harm — is already a civil wrong, thus rendering the clause in Grill 225’s policy unnecessary and “profoundly stupid,” he said.

“If I said the service was terrible — ‘terrible’ is an opinion, you can’t sue someone for that,” he said, noting that a quick scan of Grill 225’s Yelp reviews show them to be quite opinion-laden. “Very few reviews would actually be defamation.”


In the two years the Charleston restaurant has had the contract, it has not sued a customer, The Post and Courier reported.

But restaurants and other businesses have long worried about the potential effects of a bad review, with some turning to non-disparagement clauses as fine-print armor.

Laurent Crenshaw, who handles federal policy for Yelp, said such clauses are “unconscionable” and wouldn’t hold up in court.

Indeed, California passed the so-called “Yelp Bill” last year, making it illegal to try and punish consumers for negative online reviews. This May, similar legislation, the Consumer Review Freedom Act, was introduced in the US House of Representatives.


“We want to ensure that users have the ability to share their opinions on the Internet without the threat of litigation or fines, or being intimidated,” Crenshaw said.

Legal jargon and threats aside, the Northeast is no stranger to restaurant/client flare ups transpiring online.

Just last month, a Maine diner owner yelled at a toddler to be quiet, then went on to exchange angry Facebook posts with the 21-month-old’s family. The confrontation went viral on social media, sparking discussions about hospitality and parenting.

In June, a party of 20 celebrating a birthday and singing along to the radio at a New Hampshire ribs joint were angry about being told to pipe down, so they turned to Yelp and Facebook. The owner responded with a snarky post of his own, saying his restaurant wasn’t a karaoke bar.

Chef-owner Michael Scelfo preps a plate at Alden & Harlow.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Cambridge restaurateur Michael Scelfo, chef-owner of Alden & Harlow, created some buzz in March after calling 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.

And in a memorable 2012 dust up, a woman compared Boston restaurant Pigalle’s pumpkin pie to vomit, only to receive a profane retort from chef Marc Orfaly, calling her “fat” and urging her to stay away from desserts. He later issued an apology on Facebook.


As online reviews continue to play a bigger and bigger role in the way businesses operate, it’s possible local establishments might consider adopting non-disparagement clauses like that of Charleston’s Grill 225 — not that they would be any more enforceable. Were this to become a trend, Sellars said, it would likely be struck down under consumer protection laws.

And from a marketing perspective, attempting to censor guests is a bad idea, said Kristen Ciccolini of Cambridge-based PR firm Metter Media.

“Any restaurant owner knows that criticism just comes with the territory, and being defensive about it before it even happens tells the customer you’re not willing to listen or improve,” Ciccolini wrote in an e-mail.

“It’s important to let your guests know they’re being heard and that you’ll take their experience into consideration for future operations.”

Then again, there’s always the route Scelfo took: “#wedontnegotiate

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at stephanie.mcfeeters@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mcfeeters.