Senate Committee Votes to Protect Right to Post Negative Yelp Reviews

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The Consumer Review Freedom Act would bar contracts that gag consumers from leaving negative online reviews.

The Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee ad­vanced le­gis­la­tion Wed­nes­day aimed at pro­tect­ing the right of con­sumers to leave neg­at­ive on­line re­views about busi­nesses.

The Con­sumer Re­view Free­dom Act, which passed the pan­el in a voice vote, would bar the use of con­trac­tu­al gag clauses that pro­hib­it con­sumers from say­ing any­thing dis­par­aging about the busi­ness, in­clud­ing in an on­line re­view.

Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee Chair­man John Thune, a South Dakota Re­pub­lic­an who sponsored the bill, ar­gued that such clauses “stifle free and hon­est speech” and “de­crease con­sumer power.”

At a hear­ing on the is­sue earli­er this month, Jen­nifer Palmer, an Ore­gon wo­man, test­i­fied that her hus­band had bought Christ­mas gifts from an on­line re­tail­er called KlearGear. After the gifts nev­er ar­rived and the com­pany didn’t re­spond to their com­plaints, Palmer left a crit­ic­al re­view of the com­pany on Ripof­fRe­port.com.

More than three years later, KlearGear con­tac­ted her, claim­ing she was in vi­ol­a­tion of a non-dis­par­age­ment clause in the com­pany’s terms of use and that she owed $3,500 un­less she re­moved the re­view. But Ripof­fRe­port.com doesn’t al­low con­sumers to re­move their re­views, and KlearGear re­por­ted the $3,500 as an un­paid debt to col­lec­tion agen­cies, Palmer test­i­fied.

“Com­pan­ies should not have the power to re­strict con­sumer speech or pun­ish people who cri­ti­cize them,” said Palmer, who even­tu­ally sued KlearGear and won. “Com­pan­ies should have to earn their repu­ta­tions hon­estly with good products and ser­vices, and fair deal­ing.”

The le­gis­la­tion, which cov­ers only con­tracts with con­sumers and not em­ploy­ees, has the sup­port of con­sumer-ad­vocacy groups and on­line-re­view web­sites like Tri­pAd­visor and Yelp.

Laurent Cren­shaw, the head of pub­lic policy for Yelp, said his com­pany is “very pleased” that the Sen­ate is ad­van­cing le­gis­la­tion to pro­tect the abil­ity of con­sumers to cri­ti­cize com­pan­ies.

“On­line re­views help to em­power con­sumers and provide feed­back to busi­ness own­ers; we at Yelp hope that this bill con­tin­ues to move quickly to­wards be­com­ing the law of the land,” he said in an emailed state­ment.

The bill, which is co­sponsored by Sens. Bri­an Schatz and Jerry Mor­an, now heads to the Sen­ate floor for con­sid­er­a­tion. Rep. Dar­rell Issa, a Cali­for­nia Re­pub­lic­an, has in­tro­duced coun­ter­part le­gis­la­tion in the House, but it’s yet to re­ceive a vote in com­mit­tee.

(Image via GongTo/Shutterstock.com)