The Virginia Supreme Court made it harder for businesses stung by anonymous social media postings to fight back and get information identifying the people who post online comments. In Yelp v. Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, the court threw out a Virginia Subpoena and Contempt Order against Yelp after the social media giant refused to turn over documents identifying people who anonymously posted negative social media comments about Hadeed.In a decision that sidestepped free speech issues presented by going after negative social media commentary, the court concluded that in order to force Yelp to fork over the identifying documents that were stored in San Francisco, Hadeed had to go to a San Francisco court and get a subpoena there to get the documents. This decision yields a convoluted result, since such a business trying to unmask an anonymous social media purveyor of defamatory online statements needs to go ‘coast to coast’ in order to get a Virginia court to obtain documents in California. This is not an efficient use of company resources already suffering from false online commentary. Also, as the dissenting justices pointed out, this result is clearly outdated since companies like Yelp probably have documents electronically available all over the country, and treating these materials like they are sitting in a 1950’s file cabinet seems absurd.
Businesses and executives need to be aware of this decision, and the fact that they can still go after anonymous online social media postings that are false and defamatory. They just need to go through an extra hoop to get a subpoena that is issued from the jurisdiction where such information is located to get the information identifying who posted false online information. Companies can still get their day in court to fight false online social media postings, but will have to do so more methodically as they fight back to maintain their online reputations.