Updated: 9:54 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011 | Posted: 4:01 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011

Seattle-Area Man Threatened With Lawsuit Over Yelp Review

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How protected is your freedom of speech online?

A Seattle-area man was recently sued after writing a negative review about a local business.

With time ticking, he turned to KIRO 7 Consumer Investigators for help.

The man, who posted under the username "JT," shared with KIRO 7 a lawsuit and subpoena that ordered online review website Yelp to turn over "business records" that included the man's identifying information by 10 a.m. on Wednesday, August 10.

What started it all was JT's anonymous review, in which he claims the property management company that runs the apartment in which he lives doesn't properly address tenant concerns. JT says before posting he repeatedly tried to get David Poletti and Associates to fix areas of concern in his Seattle-area building, with little or no response.

KIRO 7 Investigator Amy Clancy: "So you have expressed your dissatisfaction with conditions before?" JT: "Many times, and I have all of them documented through e-mails."

Frustrated, JT posted the review on Yelp, wanting to warn future renters. He claims he didn't want to use his real name, or have KIRO 7 reveal his identity, out of fear of retaliation.

"Until I found another space to move, I didn't want to deal with any personal or any landlord/tenant repercussions," JT says.

JT didn't think about the posting again until Yelp forwarded the subpoena, ordering the San Francisco-based website to hand over its business records, including information that might reveal who JT really is.

"I feel like there are some First Amendment rights involved here," JT says. "I didn't say anything that was slanderous, libelous or defamatory. I stated something that was true. It wasn't pretty, but it was true."

However, Greg Lawless, the Seattle lawyer who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the property management company, says the review contains information that is "flat out wrong." Lawless claims his client, David Poletti did try to have a dialogue with JT on Yelp to iron things out, as Poletti has done with other online reviews, but that he was unsuccessful. Lawless claims the legal action was taken; not to suppress JT's opinion, which he says is "welcome," but to clear up what Lawless calls inaccuracies.

Whatever the reason for the lawsuit, attorney Josh King, vice president of Avvo.com, a website where consumers post reviews of doctors and lawyers, says any legal action was not a good idea.

"The idea of pursuing a defamation lawsuit over an online posting about the stupidest thing you can do as a business owner," King said. "It simply raises the profile of the issue, it ignores an opportunity to respond to customer feedback and it lets other consumers feel that you as a business are more interested in covering up negative feedback than actually responding to it and addressing it."

After receiving the subpoena, JT says he shut down his Yelp account.

And Yelp tells KIRO 7 the company takes every step available to protect its sources, as it did in JT's case.

Since we started asking questions, Lawless has withdrawn his lawsuit and subpoena, and for now the threat of legal action against JT is over.

But our investigation does raise questions about web posters' First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. What is simply opinion? What is slander? Or defamation? What can get you attention? And what can get you in legal trouble?

For clarification, check out the two videos below and visit the Citizen Media Law Project's page on Washington's Anti-SLAPP Law.

UNCUT: Learn About Washington's Anti-SLAPP Law UNCUT: Opinion Or Slander: Ways Bloggers Can Protect Themselves From Defamation Suits

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