Human Rights

“Filthy, Dirty Rotten Stinking” Hotel Fines Couple for Writing a Bad Review

Consumers may sign away their rights to leave a negative product review, even if it's truthful.

After a British couple left a caustic review of a hotel on the TripAdvisor website, the hotel fined them the equivalent of $156 for their comments.

Jan and Tony Jenkinson visited the Broadway Hotel in Blackpool, England, which already had a lowly “two-star” rating given by its visitors. After their stay, they left an online a review calling the lodging a “filthy, dirty, rotten stinking hovel.” A few weeks later, when reviewing their credit card bill, the Jenkinson’s noticed an odd charge of £100 (about $157) from the Broadway Hotel. So, they inquired with the hotel about the odd additional charge.

“I phoned them up and asked them why,” Tony Jenkinson said, “and they said it was because we left a bad review. I says, ‘how about if I leave a good one? Will you give me £100?' And he says, ‘it doesn’t work like that.'”

Jenkinson told the hotel that he was inclined to go back on TripAdvisor and leave a review telling people how the hotel had fined them. "And he told us to go ahead. He says, ‘I still have your credit card...I’ll just take another £100 of you.'”

Apparently, it’s hotel policy to charge guests for bad reviews. The room itself only cost  £36 ($56.45), or about a third of what the fine cost them.

The Jenkinson's told the BBC that “the taps weren’t working” and that the chest of drawers caved in when opened. Also, the carpet was stained and the wallpaper was peeling away. They also complained that the hotel rules said that incoming calls could not be taken on the room phone. When Jenkinson told the hotel staff that the hot water tap was broken, they said it would be fixed the next day, but the Jenkinsons were only there for the night. The Jenkinsons released a video of the hotel room's condition to the BBC. 

The Jenkinsons are trying to get his money back: Tony Jenkinson told the BBC that “annoyed is not strong enough for how I feel about this. What happened to freedom of speech?”

On hearing of the fine, TripAdvisor, the Massachusetts based travel site, released a  statement that it did not approve of the practice of fining those that reviews hotels on their sites and said such instances are rare.

U.S. consumers should note that this is not something that just happens “over there.” In the U.S. people may unwittingly sign away their free speech protections by accepting a product terms of service without reading the fine print. To keep people from posting negative reviews on the Internet, some corporations are adding non-disparagement clauses into contracts. If a consumer’s negative review (even a truthful one) is seen by that company online, it is seen as a violation of the terms of service, giving the company the right to sue them.

One recent case involved an Arizona woman who wrote a negative comment on Yelp about a local car repair service. She complained that she was unhappy with the repair and customer service. Shortly thereafter, the  repair shop sent her a letter stating she must remove her review, which they said was untruthful. But instead of taking it down, the woman, Kendra McConnell posted the letter from Premier Coach along with a rebuttal in her existing review. Premier Coach Works sued her ten days later. McConnell removed her negative review in exchange for Premier Coach Works dropping the lawsuit.

It should be noted that companies do have the right to sue people for false negative reviews, regardless of whether there is any terms of service agreement. But whether a company can sue a consumer for posting a truthful negative is new legal territory. In the U.S., litigation is largely determined on a case-by-case and state-by-state basis. However, some states are taking action to protect consumers. Earlier this year, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the state's "Yelp Bill" into law. It prohibits businesses from putting non-disparagement clauses into contracts and penalizing customers for posting negative reviews.

Similar legislation, the Consumer Review Freedom Act was proposed in Congress in September and is stll in committee.

Currently, your only protection is to read the fine print of contracts. Look closely for phrases such as “agree not to disparage,” “non-disparagement,” and “a no-review policy,”  or anything that implies legal action or fines for negative comments or reviews about a company.

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.