The internet offers seemingly infinite possibilities for businesses to connect with their customers and reach out to new ones. It also gives consumers nearly unlimited ways to communicate with businesses and also with other consumers about businesses. Websites like Yelp enable consumers to post reviews of businesses for the public to see. Many businesses take negative reviews as a sign that they need to reconsider some aspect of their operations. A few, however, have taken a more assertive stance by attempting to bar customers entirely from posting negative reviews. A law passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in late 2016, the Consumer Review Fairness Act (CRFA) of 2016, prohibits businesses from using form contracts that purport to restrict consumers’ ability to post negative or critical reviews, commonly known as “gag clauses” or “non-disparagement clauses.”
At first glance, a contract prohibiting someone from posting negative reviews to a site like Yelp, while possibly allowing positive reviews, might seem to violate the free speech guarantee of the First Amendment. This is not entirely accurate, though, since the prohibition comes from a contract between two private parties—a business and its customer. The First Amendment, simply stated, only prohibits the government from imposing content-based restrictions on speech. A private party, such as a restaurant or retail store, is legally permitted to eject a customer for almost any reason, including offensive speech.
One exception to the First Amendment’s free speech protection is defamatory speech. This is a statement made to the public that is false, that causes harm to the subject of the statement, and that the person making the statement knows or should know is false. A spoken defamatory statement is known as slander, and a written one is called libel. A customer who posts a negative review of a business that contains false information could be liable to the business for damages in a defamation lawsuit. The CRPA does not concern itself with this type of situation but instead with contractual clauses that prohibit both truthful and false negative reviews.