Virginia Supreme Court considering whether Yelp can shield online reviewers' anonymity

The right to speak anonymously on the Internet will be compromised if a carpet cleaner succeeds in unmasking the identities of critics who posted negative reviews online, a lawyer for the Yelp Inc. business review website told the Virginia Supreme Court on Tuesday.

In a closely watched Internet free-speech case, a judge held Yelp in contempt for failing to comply with Hadeed Carpet Cleaning's subpoena for identifying information about seven reviewers. San Francisco-based Yelp appealed, arguing that the ruling violates its users' First Amendment rights.

The justices are expected to rule in January.

The Alexandria rug-cleaning business filed a defamation lawsuit in 2012 claiming its reputation was stained by seven people who said in Yelp reviews that they were overcharged. Hadeed suspects the critics are not actual customers but was unable to determine that for certain based on the limited information it could glean from the Internet postings to compare with its customer database.

Paul Alan Levy, an attorney for Yelp, argued that suspicion alone is not enough to strip reviewers of anonymity.

"There has to be evidence of wrongdoing before you impose on the constitutional right to speak anonymously," Levy said.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other media organizations supported Yelp's position in a friend-of-the-court brief.

"The products we use, the services we employ and the places we visit are highly personal, and an effective review system can only exist where those reviewers are unnamed and free to speak openly about their experiences," the organizations wrote.

The Virginia Court of Appeals, which upheld the Alexandria judge's ruling, said in January that the reviewers' free-speech rights "must be balanced against Hadeed's right to protect its reputation." The court concluded that Hadeed met all of its obligations under a six-step process in state law for obtaining the identifying information.

Hadeed's attorney, Raighne C. Delaney, suggested that fears about the harm to freedom of speech lack merit.

"These businesses are not looking to go out and sue people for no reason," he said.

Delaney said his client made "a good faith effort" to determine whether the reviewers were Hadeed customers without demanding information from Yelp, but Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn said there was nothing in the court record outlining what steps the carpet cleaner took.

"There's only so far you take your investigation when people are hiding their identity," Delaney said.