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The next time you're about to post a scathing review of some business online, you may want to think twice. Last week, a housing contractor named Christopher Dietz sued a former customer for $750,000 in defamation charges for what the customer had written in an online review. On the website Yelp, Jane Perez wrote that Dietz had stolen jewelry from her and damaged her home. And on Thursday, a judge took the unusual step of ordering her to take down parts of those reviews. Eric Goldman is with us. He's a law professor at Santa Clara University. He's here to tell us more about these kinds of cases. Professor Goldman, welcome to the show.

ERIC GOLDMAN: Thank you. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So, are these cases very common or is this kind of a new area of law that's emerging?

GOLDMAN: Well, overall, we don't see a lot of lawsuits over consumer reviews of businesses. There's two reasons why. Consumer reviews are a relatively recent phenomenon. So, we're still developing the rules about how to deal with consumer reviews. The second is that in most cases, the economics don't support litigating. It doesn't sense for the business and it doesn't make sense for the reviewer. So, most of the time, the parties simply don't want to spend the money to fight in court.

MARTIN: The plaintiff in this case in Virginia has alleged that the damaging reviews have cost him $300,000 worth of business revenue. Can that be possible? I mean, it has been shown that an extra half-star on Yelp can bring in a lot of business. But can one negative review really cause that much damage?

GOLDMAN: It's extremely unlikely that a single individual review costs a business anything. My perspective is that any individual review is not credible, but the aggregate effect of the reviews, when you add them all up, tends to paint a pretty accurate picture. So, anything could be possible but I'm incredibly skeptical that the review has caused so many consumers to take their businesses elsewhere.

MARTIN: Do you suspect that the fact that this woman has been ordered to take some of her posting, is this likely to have some kind of chilling effect on reviews?

GOLDMAN: The order to remove the reviews isn't likely to have a chilling effect, but the lawsuit itself is quite a chilling development for reviewers. And the article quotes her as saying that she had no idea she could be sued for her words. And I think most people don't realize that they're betting their house. Whatever assets they have, they're putting on the line every time they put their opinions out into the public discourse. And when people realize that, it becomes incredibly inhibiting. And so the lawsuit itself is a good reminder to people that they own their words. We put a lot at stake when we share those words with the public.

MARTIN: That's Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University. Professor Goldman, thanks so much for talking with us.

GOLDMAN: It's a pleasure.


MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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