New Law Bans Companies From Punishing Online Critics

Yelp review sticker on window
Scott Eells—Bloomberg via Getty Images Reviewers in California need not fear retribution if they disagree with this sign.

A new California law will outlaw "non-disparagement" clauses that prevent customers from posting negative reviews online.

Writing a Yelp review just got a whole lot safer thanks to a new law, signed by California governor Jerry Brown, which prohibits companies from going after customers who write negative reviews of their services.

The law, which appears to be the first of its kind in the United States, prevents companies from including “non-disparagement” clauses in their contracts with customers. The L.A. Times explains these clauses are often hidden in long user agreements that many consumers unwittingly agree to when using a service.

From now on, California businesses that try to enforce such a provision will face a civil penalty of $2,500 for their first offense, $5,000 for each repeated infraction, and an additional $10,000 fine for “a willful, intentional, or reckless violation” of the statute.

This type of legislation might seem unnecessary since forcefully silencing one’s customers seems to be a clear violation of the First Amendment. However, that hasn’t stopped a number of American companies from trying to mute criticism using just the type of contracts this bill seeks to outlaw.

MONEY’s Brad Tuttle previously reported on a series of businesses that shake down their dissatisfied clients. One upstate New York inn threatened to bill customers $500 per negative review if they hosted an event at the location and any guests took their grievances online. Another couple was pursued by a collection agency after violating an (arguably non-existent) non-disparagement clause by slamming the online retailer KlearGear on Thankfully, a federal judge ruled in the customers’ favor.

While American courts have generally protected citizen reviewers against retribution from businesses, with or without a specific legislative mandate, that hasn’t always been the case internationally. Earlier this year, a French court fined one food blogger a total of €2,500 (about $3,200 at today’s exchange rate) after the blogger’s negative review of a restaurant appeared near the top of Google’s search results.

At least in California, online critics need not fear a similar fate.

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