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Yelp without fear, says new California law

Restaurants and other businesses can't punish customers for bad online reviews under a California law.

Story highlights

  • California law bans restaurants from targeting bad reviews
  • Reviews on Yelp and elsewhere can't lead to fines
  • A New York site had a $500 fine for bad reviews from wedding parties
Ready to rip apart that dirty restaurant with the rude service, strange-looking patty melts and lukewarm coffee? California lawmakers want to make sure you don't get in financial, or legal, trouble because of it.
A state law signed this week by Gov. Jerry Brown makes Yelp reviews a lot safer, saying that restaurants can't pursue legal action for customers who give them negative reviews.
The digital-age legislation appears to be the first of its kind.
It addresses so-called "disparagement clauses," lines included in businesses' terms of service that prohibit customers from posting negative comments about the service they received.
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The new law bans such clauses. It would fine any business that tries to enforce one $2,500 the first time and $5,000 every time after that, with another $10,000 added if the action is considered "willful, intentional or reckless."
It seems like a law so ridiculous would never be needed. Sure, freedom of speech under the First Amendment lets us tell the world that we just had the worst bowl of chili in the world, right?
Well, that hasn't stopped restaurants and other service-industry spots from trying to go after customers for just that.
Last month, Union Street Guest House in Hudson, New York, was featured in the New York Post for trying to fine wedding parties $500 for each negative online review by a member of their parties.
Hundreds of people took to Yelp to complain about the policy and write mostly fake, eviscerating reviews of the hotel.
"Trying to prevent your customers from talking about their experiences is bad policy and, in this case, likely unenforceable anyway," Yelp said.
Overseas, a French blogger was fined the equivalent of about $3,200 after a negative review of a restaurant began surfacing prominently in Google searches.