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SNOPES DEBUNKED: Yelp versus South Park and Comedy Central: A Frivolous Lawsuit?

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SNOPES debunked this story –

Yelp versus South Park and Comedy Central: A Frivolous Lawsuit?

The sometimes controversial review site, Yelp, has filed a “$10 million dollar lawsuit” against the creators of South Park and its network, Comedy Central. Yelp is seeking damages it alleges were caused by a recent episode of South Park which made fun of the customer review and local business rating website. You can watch the full episode here-

The episode uses a thing called “parody” to spoof Yelp users through animated characters in a clearly fictional setting. The characters go on power trips at restaurants, including in the prestigious SoDaSoPa district. These animated characters pretend to be food critics, with heightened importance based on their membership to Yelp. It’s commentary not just on Yelp, but as to social media as a whole- the sometimes ridiculous amount of self importance of people who post on the internet. The lead character, Eric Cartman, threatens one-star reviews if he doesn’t get what he wants: “I was thinking of giving this place five stars, but I am kind of teetering on five stars or one star. I mean I can probably be persuaded with free desserts.”

Response by Parties

Paul Horner, the spokesman for Yelp, spoke with NBC News about details of the lawsuit, stating:

“Our company, along with its millions of users, take Yelp very seriously. The South Park episode was in extremely bad taste and not funny whatsoever. To say our critics are out there trying to get free food and using racist slurs on little Mexican children is beyond ridiculous. To compare the users of Yelp to terrorists is not only cruel, but the definition of libel and slander. I believe any reasonable court in America will agree with the lawsuit and rule in our favor.”

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators and voices of the show, were quick to issue a statement of their own, with tongue still firmly in cheek:

“We’ve taken a hard look at the information presented to us, and after reviewing it, we have given Yelp and their lawsuit only one star. Their lawyers delivered us legal documents in a very unprofessional manner; not bothering to smile or even a quick handshake. The writing on the envelope was barely legible and in two different colors. It is our personal opinion that Yelp could do a much better job by not suing us for ten million dollars.”

“$10 Million Dollar” Lawsuit

We have not yet seen the complaint, but anytime anyone publicizes a “$__ million dollar lawsuit,” we aren’t a fan. Lawsuit amounts are determined by juries or judges. You can ask for whatever you want, but when you add in a 7-figure number to your press release, you are just trying to generate publicity. And Yelp did just that. Meanwhile, it is bringing more attention to the parody, criticism of its website and its users and essentially is probably doing more to prmote defamation of itself than the writers of South Park did.

SLAPP in the Face

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation is what consumer advocates refer to lawsuits with little chance of prevailing in court but which are brought for secondary reasons including to silence critics. Yelp has commented in the past about such “frivolous” lawsuits filed against its reviewers and has sought legislation against lawsuits designed for publicity. Oh, the irony. Aaron Schur, Yelp’s senior litigation director, once told Mother Jones that “the company hears on a regular basis from users who report being sued by the subjects of their reviews. Often it is the case that even if the claim is merit-less, they can get the speech at issue withdrawn,” he says. We guess all of those frivolous lawsuits taught them a thing or two about how to use the court of public opinion to get some web traffic.  The cost? A small filing fee.

The First Amendment & Parody

Why do we have a problem with it? It was long ago decided by the United States Supreme Court that a plaintiff cannot win a defamation lawsuit when the statements in question were expressions of opinion rather than fact. In the words of the highest court in the land, “under the First Amendment, there is no such thing as a false idea.” See Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974).

In a lawsuit involving Huster Magazine, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a parody claiming Reverend Jerry Falwell committed a most lewd act, while false, could not allow Falwell to win damages for emotional distress because the statement was based on humor which no one would believe was true. An statement based on such clear falsehood and uttered in humor or political commentary brought no liability upon the author. The Court discussed the importance of allowing the free flow of ideas despite a possible negative emotional impact on the target of ridicule.  See Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988). But the comparison to ISIS was somehow fact based and real and causes them damages?

Creators of parody may be faced with questions of copyright infringement, but we think South Park steered away from those issues, as well. Further, this is where “fair use” may come into play in accordance with Section 107 of the Copyright Act, as a defense against an accusation of copyright infringement.

This law review discusses it in greater detail if you’d like to know more – The First Amendment is a great thing.

Full Disclosure & Conclusion

We aren’t fans of Yelp, either, in full disclosure. We have two positive reviews and one negative one by a guy who has never been a client, never met us, doesn’t even seem to understand what we do and seems to just like giving lawyers bad reviews. Meanwhile, we have other great reviews from actual clients that Yelp keeps hidden. We have tried addressing this before, even threatening to sue them to no avail.

There are countless sites criticizing Yelp for doing harm to business owners for defamation (much like what was pointed out by Matt and Trey) and libeling their businesses based on Yelp’s inexplicable metrics which seem to reward abusive behavior by its users. I said it. You can file a $20 million lawsuit against me if you like. We could use the press and we tend to like the First Amendment around here, too.

These guys know the line, and even if they cross it, you have no damages. As Eric Cartman would say:

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