Don't ask consumers to sign gag orders

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Don't ask consumers to sign gag orders

July 2, 2014

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I don’t like gag orders. I believe consumers should never be asked to surrender their right to free speech.

I stepped up on my soapbox about this issue a few years ago, after we learned that a few physicians wanted patients to waive the right to post online reviews about their experiences with the doctor. Not long ago, after one of our researchers wrote an article about more recent gag orders, I decided to revisit the issue of the "non-disparagement clause." That's the official, legal term for what I call a gag order.

Such clauses — which often say the company can sue if you post a negative review — have trickled their way into the occasional service-provider contract, including from general contractors, photographers, movers and handyman companies. Thankfully, this is not a common occurrence, but I think it's important that consumers know there's a chance a contract could contain one of these clauses.

I realize that negative reviews represent a business concern for companies, but reputable service providers should not fear to hear the truth from customers. And at Angie’s List, we don’t permit anonymous reviews.

Because we relish free speech and also rely on the unfettered feedback of members, our policies discourage service providers from trying to control consumer feedback.

We’ve asked our members to let us know if they come across a company wanting them to sign a gag order. We won’t allow a company that shows a pattern of trying to impose speech restrictions to remain available to searches of Angie’s List.

But before we ever got to that point, we would contact the company, explain our policies and give the business a chance to stop imposing gag orders.

I like how one of our members, from San Antonio, handled the situation when a contractor initially included a non-disparagement clause in the job contract. The company owner explained that he wanted to keep customers from threatening to submit a negative review as leverage to gain something, such as a lower price.

“I don’t play those games,” our member told the contractor, who agreed to remove the clause, which prompted the member to sign the contract. “I think being upfront and reasonable helped,” he concluded, adding that the project worked out well.

Being upfront and reasonable works well for everyone. To me, it’s reasonable that a great company might get occasional negative feedback, because no one is perfect. What matters most is how the company responds, and at Angie’s List we give them a chance to do that.

In the long run, I believe, we all benefit from a free flow of information.

Photo illustration by Steve Mitchell of Angie's List

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