Last Sunday, a man was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight because, he claims, he left a bad review of a gate agent on Twitter.
The man, Duff Watson, was upset because he felt his elite status with the airline entitled him to treatment he wasn't receiving. In anger, he sent a tweet naming a gate agent who had refused him early boarding access with his children, aged 6 and 9. The man says no profanity was used, nor were there threats of any kind, but he did publically tweet the name of the gate agent, whom he called "rude." They then boarded the plane.
But a few minutes later, they were told to get back off because the gate agent asserted that she thought the safety of the crew was threatened. Whether that was merely a ruse is under question, because the police weren't summoned. Instead, the Southwest employee wouldn't allow the family to re-board unless the man deleted the negative tweet. (See the news report from a Minnesota CBS affiliate here.)
Whether the airline should have allowed the man (who held elite status) early boarding with his young children (who don't) is a discussion for another day. Because no one was charged with any crime the true gripe, in this case, appears to have been retaliation for a complaint tweet.
Add this to the recent story about the hotel that filed a $74,500 defamation suit against whomever who left a review on TripAdvisor.com that alleged its staff "are either high or drunk" and that a front desk staffer was making dirty phone calls. (I say "whomever" because, like many TripAdvisor reviews, the person behind it remains anonymous, and no one can figure out who actually left it.)
Historically, online reviews have been protected by free speech laws, which generally protect what you say as long as what is said is factually true and not colored by malice. If it's a lie, free speech is much harder to defend.
Whether the words of traveler-submitted reviews are factually correct or not, reviewers are increasingly being held accountable for them—and increasingly, they are facing legal bills in defending themselves. Last March, an Oregon court allowed a wedding venue to sue someone who posted a negative review of it.
On some days, it seems like if you deleted all the negative comments about airlines and hotels from Facebook and Twitter, all you'd be left with is links to puppy videos. So I wouldn't count on companies going after everyone who has something negative to say.
But they are growing more sensitive. A report last winter found that three quarters of businesses are indeed tracking what you say about them online. Usually, businesses respond to social media comments with helpful customer service—as much as it may gall them to greet vitriol with helpful words.
But smaller businesses that cannot afford to take the blow to their reputations are not always sensible enough to deal with issues without getting lawyers involved, and there's a general feeling that even one or two high-profile incidents will go a long way toward silencing would-be negative reviews in the future.
So even if you are 100% correct to warn other customers about your experience on Yelp or the like, that doesn't mean there isn't the potential of having to shell out for a lawyer to swat down claims against you.
These days, not only must you police user-generated reviews for fake postings, you also must police yourself for honest ones.
Photo credit: Stuseeger/Flickr