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“Derogatory Comments” on Yelp Lead to Retaliation Charge

On April 19, U.S. District Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater convicted a 53-year-old search engine optimizer and reputation manager of one count of retaliation. William Laurence Stanley, the defendant, landed in custody in 2016 after extorting Generational Equity, court documents revealed. While in custody, he began another extortion process against the reputation management company. He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Generational Equity hired Stanley in 2009 and fired him roughly a year later for operating outside of his contract. He began the extortion in 2013. Records show that he first threatened to link the company to an unannounced scam. Later records indicate that he the scam he referred to was the entirety of a reputation management’s sole function—keeping an entity’s name and reputation clean.

In December 2013 through February 2014, Stanley and his sister harassed Generational Equity through emails and phone calls. They threatened the company with the aforementioned scam link and the court documents explained that “Stanley’s search engine optimization skills threatened to cause any items he posted online to rank high on the various search engines.” And therefore, the company would have seen “significant revenue losses.”

Last year, in early August, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) transferred Stanley to a halfway house in Houston. Then, in September, the BOP moved him to his daughter’s residence under house arrest. Between September 2016 and October 10, 2016, court documents explained, while still in home confinement, Stanley began posting “derogatory” comments about the company online. The comments “intended to portray Generational Equity in a negative light,” they explained.

He posted on Yelp, Facebook, Glassdoor, ShaggyTexas, 800notes, callsreceived, Blogspot, and WordPress. One Yelp comment read, according to the FBI, “the whole thing is a SCAM.” And another that described his time as an employee at the company read “[I] had to do a lot of illegal stuff.”

In the courtroom, Stanley argued that the First Amendment protected his comments and that everything he wrote was truthful. The court reminded the jury that “[e]xpression is not protected by the First Amendment if the speaker intends his words to become, and the tendency of his words do become, an integral part of conduct that violates a valid criminal statute.”

The jury found Stanley guilty of retaliation and Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater scheduled the sentencing hearing for August 4, 2017.

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