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Hotel tries to muzzle TripAdvisor reviewer

Question: I stayed at a place in Palm Springs that I didn't like and posted my review on TripAdvisor. I received a letter from an attorney threatening to sue me for libel if I did not remove my negative review within 14 days. I have contacted others who have written reviews for this establishment and they also received the attorney's letter. When I contacted TripAdvisor, I received an e-mail that said the site took the threats seriously, but they didn't even ask for a copy of the attorney's letter. Shouldn't TripAdvisor be leading the charge for protecting customers?

--Rob Wilcox, Los Angeles

Answer: That fine print that no one reads when you agree to the terms and conditions on TripAdvisor? It lets the site off the hook.

But in an e-mail to me, Brooke Ferencsik, senior manager of media relations for TripAdvisor, said, "It is rare that a hotelier threatens a reviewer with legal action, but if we are made aware of such an instance, we will send out a letter to the owner alerting them that their property will be actively monitored by TripAdvisor for suspicious activity and that they must discontinue any attempts to subvert our system. We also make them aware that we have a procedure for penalizing businesses who make such attempts."

And if TripAdvisor's words to the unwise don't resonate, you always have the 1st Amendment on your side -- you know, that little thing that says, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech. . . ."

Maybe the hotel's lawyer was absent the day the class studied that chapter.

And maybe he isn't aware that California takes a dim view of something legal eagles call a SLAPP suit, for strategic lawsuit against public participation. Such suits are often used to intimidate people into silence on certain issues.

"California has a statute that protects [people] when they get sued for exercising their constitutional rights," said Gary Williams, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "First thing I would try to do is argue it's a SLAPP suit."

Al Anolik, a travel rights attorney in the Bay Area, contends that Wilcox is only trying to give constructive criticism. "The hotel should spend the money on maintenance rather than attorney fees," he said.

Ruth Furman, who owns Image Words, a Las Vegas-based public relations and marketing firm, noted: "I'd suggest they [the hotel] do exactly what I've seen other property owners do on TripAdvisor: Have one of their representatives post a concise statement in accordance with TripAdvisor's posting policy, stating that they regret the traveler's negative experience and that they have addressed the issues, if that is the case, and that their property maintains the highest standards and consistently achieves high ratings from travelers and independent hospitality evaluators, if this is the case."

The hotel and/or its lawyer may not know about the 1st Amendment, but you'd think a California business would know about reputation management.

All the experts agreed that those who post on TripAdvisor or like sites need not worry about having their say as long as they frame it as opinion rather than fact.

The hotel may have been as dirty as Eliot Spitzer's recent laundry, but it's probably wiser to frame your remarks in terms of your reactions, as in, "It didn't meet my standards for cleanliness."

In other words, lower the boom with a view.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com.

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