Seattle, Wash — Ruling Helps Set Standard for Protecting Consumers’ Freedom of Speech when Sharing Commentary on Products and Services Online
The Washington state Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that anonymous online reviewers are entitled to basic First Amendment protections, denying a Florida-based attorney the right to unmask the identity of an anonymous reviewer on her Avvo.com profile. In Thomson v. Doe, the court determined a strong standard needed to be set for protecting consumers’ rights to anonymity online. That standard requires that those bringing such lawsuits provide evidence that the criticism within the anonymous comment is actually defamatory.
The lawsuit stems from negative reviews that appeared on Avvo, Yelp, and Google, related to Tampa-based attorney Deborah Thomson’s handling of a client divorce proceeding in September 2013. Thomson filed suit alleging defamation on May 21, 2014 in Hillsborough County, Fla., which eventually led to her seeking a subpoena in Washington state on June 25, 2014 to “unmask” the identity of the critic who had posted on Avvo. A Washington trial court rejected this request on July 28, 2014, and Thomson appealed; she did not seek a subpoena in California, where Yelp and Google are based, which has a strong protective standard.
The court ruling helps set the standard for any disputes involving anonymous speech in Washington. To date, 12 states and the District of Columbia, as well as many federal courts, have adopted similar standards that provide strong First Amendment protections to anonymous online reviewers.
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