Why Did Yelp Delete Critical Reviews of the Texas Restaurant That Wouldn’t Serve “Fags”?

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
June 4 2014 11:39 AM

Why Did Yelp Delete Critical Reviews of the Texas Restaurant That Wouldn’t Serve “Fags”?

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Reviews of their bait prices can stay, but no criticism of their policies, please.

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After news broke that Big Earl’s, a small-town Texas restaurant, kicked out a gay couple after calling them “fags,” equality-minded denizens of the Internet flooded the establishment’s Yelp page with scathingly hilarious reviews and pictures. But within a few days, virtually all those reviews had disappeared—and soon after, some of their authors received this email from Yelp:

Though we understand this business has recently received media attention and that users may have strong opinions, Yelp reviews should be focused on everyday customer experiences with a business; we think this is an important requirement for keeping Yelp a useful site for consumer reviews. While you are welcome to post your comments on Yelp Talk, please note that at this time we will be removing any repostings from you to this business listing.
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Although satirical reviews continue to flood the page, Yelp has endeavored to delete all but two—the only two written by actual customers. One praises Big Earl’s fried shrimp and catfish; the other complaints that “the food was too salty” and warns, “I would not recommend this place, based on the price of its bait.” (To be fair, $3.75 for a minnow bucket does seem pretty exorbitant.)

Why did Yelp take down the myriad reviews that criticized Big Earl’s cruel and embarrassing anti-gay policies? A spokesperson for the website told me that “reviews of businesses on Yelp should be about the first-hand customer experience” and that “non-germane, media-fueled reviews” will usually be deleted. (Users can flag any reviews that might violate Yelp’s Content Guidelines, and a user support team decides whether to keep or kill them.) Yelp exists to break the “where should we go for dinner?” stalemate before you and your partner descend into a hangry, relationship-ending brawl. It is not a place to inveigh against anti-gay policies in 150 wittily trenchant words.

Yelp’s policy, then, is not unreasonable. But it doesn’t really address the underlying problem so vividly revealed by the Big Earl’s dust-up. As more and more states rush to legalize anti-gay discrimination, an increasing number of restaurants will adopt policies like Big Earl’s and refuse to serve gays and lesbians. We’ll need a way to know which restaurants are likely to call us “fags” and eject us; Yelp would seem to be the perfect place to gather such information. Reviewers can, of course, already note personal discriminatory experiences in individual restaurant reviews. But without encouragement to do so, most might rather simply forget about their humiliation rather than detailing it in public.

I asked Yelp whether, instead of ad hoc warnings buried in reviews, it might consider a formal mechanism by which users can warn of a restaurant’s discriminatory policies—a small note at the top of the page, for instance.

“Yelp does not support any sort of discrimination,” the spokesperson informed me. However, “we have no plans to include warnings for specific types of treatment reviewers report in their reviews.”

I understand Yelp’s hesitation to brand certain restaurants with the mark of anti-gay policies, though I suspect some restaurants, like Big Earl’s, would wear it with pride. Still, I fear that, in this brave new world of “religious liberty” and “pluralism,” where Christians may claim a special exception to otherwise valid laws, gay people are going to need some kind of Plan B. As long as liberty in America means the liberty to post a “No Gays Allowed” sign on your restaurant’s door, we’re going to need a place to swap tips on which restaurants welcome our business—and which cannot brook our presence due to their Christian beliefs. If that’s a depressing thought, don’t blame Yelp. Blame the champions of “religious liberty” who value the special rights of devout Christians over the basic dignity of the rest of us. 

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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