The First Amendment protects anonymous speech, including online reviews of products and services written by people using fake names. The right to anonymous speech, however, is not absolute. Defamatory speech, whether or not anonymous, is not entitled to protection, as there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact. If someone pretending to be a former customer writes a defamatory review on Yelp, Amazon, or some other consumer-review site, but doesn’t disclose his or her real name, how does the business owner go about identifying the individual so that the individual can be held accountable? The answer lies in Section 8.01-407.1 of the Code of Virginia, which sets forth a specific procedure for uncovering the identities of people who communicate anonymously over the Internet.
The proper application of this statute was recently discussed in Yelp v. Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, a case arising out of Alexandria. As of October 2012, Yelp’s site contained seventy-five reviews about Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, many of them critical. Included among these reviews were assertions by anonymous authors claiming to have been charged for work never performed and claiming that “precious rugs were shrunk.” Hadeed sued the anonymous authors for defamation, alleging that the reviewers were never actual customers of Hadeed.
After filing the lawsuit, Hadeed promptly issued a subpoena duces tecum to Yelp, demanding the production of documents that would enable Hadeed to identify the authors of the allegedly defamatory reviews. Yelp objected, arguing that Hadeed had not complied with the requirements of Section 8.01-407.1. Hadeed revised its subpoena to comply with the statute, but Yelp continued to object and refused to comply. On a motion to compel compliance, the Circuit Court for the City of Alexandria held that Hadeed’s subpoena satisfied the requirements of both the statute and the First Amendment, and ordered Yelp to disclose the information. Yelp refused, and was held in contempt. It then appealed that ruling to the Virginia Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction to consider appeals of civil contempt orders), arguing that the First Amendment requires a showing of merit on both the law and facts before a subpoena duces tecum to identify an anonymous speaker can be enforced. The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding in a case of first impression that Section 8.01-407.1 is not unconstitutional and that it alone provides the unmasking standard in Virginia.