Yelp attacks casino mogul Steve Wynn for supporting legislation that makes it easy to sue people over bad reviews

steve wynn

REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Steve Wynn, chairman and CEO of Wynn Resorts, speaks at a panel discussion "CEO Conversation: Past, Present and Future of Las Vegas With Steve Wynn" at the 2009 Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills,California, April 28, 2009.

The online review site Yelp has lashed out at casino mogul Steve Wynn for supporting a Nevada law that would make it easier for businesses to sue people for "defamatory" activities like posting negative Yelp reviews.

On Friday, Yelp called out Wynn in a post on its blog for trying to "erode your free speech rights."Wynn has filed high-profile defamation litigation, and Yelp is attacking him for supporting a law to allow more so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation, also known as SLAPP lawsuits.
Many states have anti-SLAPP laws in place to make it harder for companies to sue anybody who criticizes them online. People who write negative Yelp reviews have been hit with more so-called SLAPP suits over the years. A San Francisco chiropractor, for example, sued a patient for writing a negative Yelp review about a billing dispute, as The New York Times noted.

Wynn Resorts is pushing SB 444, a controversial Nevada bill that proposes rolling back parts of state's protections against SLAPP lawsuits like these.

Wynn may be trying to eviscerate Nevada's anti-SLAPP law because a similar law in California scuttled a suit he filed against hedge fund manager Jim Chanos. Wynn accused Chanos of defaming him by criticizing companies like his that run casinos in Macau, a special administrative region in China.

"It's understandable that Wynn may not like Nevada's robust anti-SLAPP laws since he recently lost under a similar statute in California, but it would be a tragedy if the state of Nevada allowed the interests of one man to gut a law that is meant to protect the freedom of speech for all Nevadans," Yelp said on its blog earlier this month.

steve wynn
However, a lawyer who has represented Wynn and Wynn Resorts told Nevada public radio that the state's anti-SLAPP law is too broad and needs to be updated. He also said Yelp imposes too few penalties for lying and that negative reviews irreparably damage small businesses.

"It's also a mechanism that allows, for lack of a better word, online terrorism and character assassination," Langburg said in an interview with KNPR. "Disgruntled former employees, competitors, dissatisfied customers who don't just have legitimate complaints but are trying to destroy a businesses reputation can get on yelp and lie about what's occurred to them, or hasn't even occurred to them, with relative impunity in the state of Nevada."

Langburg told Business Insider that companies like Yelp have no incentive to discourage bad reviews, and that the company was needlessly safeguarding speech that's not protected by the Constitution.

"It seems to me like Yelp is prepared to back any statute that they perceive to allow people to avoid responsibility when they have gone beyond exercising their First Amendment rights and gone into the world of making intentionally false statements, which is not protected by the First Amendment," Langburg said.

When asked about Langburg's critical characterization of the customer review site, a representative for Yelp did not respond directly, but did share a Business Insider article linking to Wynn's unsuccessful 2014 defamation lawsuit against Chanos.

Wynn's support for the legislation comes after years of waging war against critics of his business with mixed results. Before losing a defamation suit against Chanos, in 2012, Wynn won $20 million in a similar suit against Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis when the adult filmmaker claimed that Wynn threatened to kill him.

The Nevada bill still awaits a final vote.